The status quo:
We’ve heard a lot in the news lately about spying. Edward Snowden is a name that will be familiar to a lot of people. He’s the former NSA contractor who “leaked” a heap of documents revealing a much bigger spy network than we ever gave the US Government / Facebook / Google / Microsoft credit for. I’m fascinated to see how his and Chelsea Manning’s place in history is depicted.
Then in little ol’ New Zealand we have our own problems with our spooks. These go way beyond a Penthouse magazine and a pie (dated reference). Here the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is allowed to spy on you. If you’re not a New Zealand citizen. Except they’ve been spying on New Zealand citizens.
Usually when an organisation misuses its power like this, there’s some kind of inquiry, then a CEO resigns, then we all shake our heads in collective disappointment. This is usually done at the behest of the Government. So what does this Government do? They go and write legislation making it legit for the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders.
And do we care? Do we fuck. We’re more interested in how a hard-working journalist got a report that was supposedly ‘classified’. And we’re too busy making salacious innuendo about how female journalists get these sorts of scoops. Stay classy New Zealand.
Since the internet started becoming omnipresent, we’ve been donating screeds and screeds of information about ourselves. Most of it fairly bland. The things we look at on Facebook and search for on Google are stored and sold. Your viewing habits become the property of a company who uses it for money to “improve” advertising. And yet this isn’t the worrisome part. The worrisome part is when that information becomes government property.
The sophistication of the technology our governments have means that they can potentially keep tabs on everything you are doing, all of the time. Phone calls, emails, where you drive, even what a tool you look like when you’re playing a dance game on Xbox360’s Kinect. And they give it such an innocuous sounding euphemism. Data gathering.
Think about those two words for a bit. Roll them around in your mouth. See how it feels. They are gathering data. Harmless isn’t it? Just some data, being gathered – oh you’ve got some data? Do you mind if I bring it all together in some kind of gathering motion? You do? Too bad.
We do not seem to be giving enough of a shit about this. Yes there are pockets of outraged technorati, rising up from their keyboards and saying “what the hell government? That’s my information. And you can’t have it.”
But for the general populace some kind of apathetic malaise has set in. I’ve been struck by the collective shrug of society’s shoulders that seems to be saying “Well I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t mind if they’re gathering my data. I mean they’re protecting me from terrorists, right?”
Yeah right, I’m sure there’s a terrorist cell out there really disappointed by these revelations. I’ve seen the Wire. In Season One they used pagers. And payphones. If you’re planning some shit, then you’re usually not stupid enough to use something with GPS in it. Or an in-built digital recording device. You go old school. PRISM ain’t capturing that data.
But that’s not the point. The adage “if you’ve got nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” isn’t true. It isn’t isn’t isn’t true. You have a lot to fear. Right now it’s ok. A little civil liberty lost here, a piece of freedom there. That’s alright because we’re being kept safe.
What if something bad happens? Not September 12 (the Sequel) or anything. But a car bomb goes off outside Reading Cinemas on Courtenay Place. In order to “protect us” the Government orders a 10pm curfew in Wellington. Everyone off the streets. And if you’re out and about you will be arrested.
Seems like an abuse of power from here, but possibly very reasonable if we need to be protected from car bombs. But a few of you don’t like it so much, and you find some others who don’t like it. And you start having a few meetings, discussing how we’re free citizens and we should be able to go out after 10pm. So you have those meetings after 10pm as a sign of peaceful protest.
And then one of you gets arrested on the way home. And the police now know about this little group and its meetings. Thanks to new GCSB legislation they can get some pretty hefty technology pointed at you and your mates. They read your emails and texts. They listen to your phone calls. They follow your cars’ GPS systems to where you have your meetings. Suddenly the whole group is arrested in a raid. The Government proudly trumpets the success of its new legislation because look! It helped catch these criminals who were clearly planning some kind of civil unrest!
So you and your friends get detained and held for a while. Because thanks to anti-terrorism powers granted to the police, they can hold you for a really long time without charge. And your family starts being harassed as well. What do they know? Are they involved?
Your kids become outcasts at school. Your husband or wife is ignored at work. No-one wants to talk to anyone you had anything to do with because they don’t want to be seen as traitors too.
While being held maybe the police rough you up a bit because they’re trying to find out information about you and your ‘terrorist cell’. What were you planning buddy? That black eye? Yeah that’s for the good of society. It’s just one black eye and it will protect the rest of the country.
You don’t think this could happen? What do you think happened in Egypt? What do you think is going on in Turkey? The problem isn’t that “those places” are “third world” and “over there”. The problem is that people in power love power. And if something becomes a threat to their power, if we’ve given them tacit permission to extend their reach, then they will.
We don’t think that similar power abuse happens in New Zealand. But it does.
We should never trust a Government not to abuse its power and we should always be vigilant. We don’t have to be paranoid, but we should care. And right now we should care a lot.
It starts piece by piece. Bit by bit. If we lose a small liberty the effect is almost unnoticeable. So we don’t care. Because right now we’ve got nothing to hide.