It’s my privacy and I’ll cry if I want to

by Lord Sutch

The status quo:

spy cameraWe’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.

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.

The hypothetical:

IRAQI FREEDOMWhat 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.

The reality:

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.


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Scott Common June 24, 2013 - 12:19 pm

I was talking with some of my younger class mates about this recently and was a little shocked to hear one of them say, “…aside from the Rainbow Warrior thing NZ hasn’t had any terrorism attacks…”. I had to inform them about the Wanganui Computer bombing and the Wellington Trades Hall bombing – both of which were pretty significant at the time.

One thing that worries me is the, “oh it can’t happen here” attitude actually means that when it does happen the repercussions are worse (something akin to Taleb’s “blackswan” effect) – both in terms of our logistical response and in terms of our legislative response. In some ways being in what’s seen as a “safe country” means we are more susceptible to the effects of these kinds of actions. Because these events are so rare (for us) we seem to accept one incident as a mandate for a whole range changes which undermine the freedoms that we’ve typically taken for granted.

The scary thing about the old “if you’ve got nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” adage is that it’s not about illegal activity – it’s about ideological activity. My partners parents have SIS files from the 80’s because they were involved in the anti-springbock tour protests – there was nothing illegal in what they did, but it was certainly against the ideology of the 80’s (and I’d argue, now) to be involved in such a “socialist” activity. You’ve only got “nothing to hide” if you’re abiding by the ideology of the time – the legality of actions is a secondary concern when it comes to spying.

Gwynn Compton June 24, 2013 - 12:20 pm

My understanding of what the GCSB was/is doing was that they were providing electronic surveillance expertise under the request of domestic law enforcement and the SIS, as those organisations did not have the resources/know how to conduct such operations themselves.

While that action itself was illegal under the legislation governing the GCSB’s activities, to me it smells more of government agencies trying to make the most of limited funding and a Number 8 Wire approach to doing their jobs rather than anything particularly sinister. It certainly doesn’t appear to be anything on the scale of the PRISM activities of the NSA. The new legislation appears to codify what was a pre-existing arrangement between those agencies. While I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that it’s now a case of “better the Devil you know”, at the very least we do know that this type of activity is going to take place.

All that aside, it does appear that the assumed social contract, where we give up some of our freedom to allow a governing body to attempt to manage society, is being altered in favour of more influence and power being given to the governing body. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it an entirely good thing.

For example, if we assume that the freedom of information on the internet means that those who wish to inflict mayhem and destruction are better equipped (knowledge wise) and organised than ever before, the argument is that we need to equip our law enforcement agencies to be able to contain that threat. As you put it though, that’s great if it prevents a terrorist attack, it’s a travesty if it’s used to intimidate or restrict people’s right to express themselves and the like.

Unfortunately I suspect that the general apathy towards the shift is an indication that, by-in-large, people are comfortable with surrendering a little more of their personal liberty in exchange for what they perceive as increased protection from such threats. Until such time that they’re given reason to not be comfortable, I’d wager that we won’t see a change in this behaviour.

While it’s important that citizens of a society should maintain an awareness and interest in how that society is being governed, I think we need to balance that out against the fact that no modern society with a tradition of democracy has slipped into the Orwellian dystopian society that you depict. Certainly they’ve swung towards it at times, such as during the Second World War, Vietnam, post-9/11, but they’ve just as readily swung away too when the compromise became too scary.

Where societies have continued that slide it has been where there was no-established tradition of democracy. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, Fascism in Europe is the prime example of this. Citizen’s weren’t particularly wedded to democratic traditions when Fascism began it’s rise, and as such they appeared more prepared to allow what were sold to them as “reasonable” infringements on their democratic rights in a way that didn’t occur elsewhere.

In New Zealand, I think we do have one gap that needs to be addressed in relation to this. I’ve never felt we teach Civics very well, in that we don’t do a very good job of teaching our next generation about the role they can play in participating in our democracy and governing structures. In particular, we don’t put enough emphasis on the role they should play in ensuring that those things continue to function in such a way as to ensure our respective freedoms, while managing the impact of those freedoms on other people’s freedoms. It does seem that there is an attitude that Government and laws is just something that happens to you, rather than something you can be an active part of shaping and moderating.

morgue June 24, 2013 - 6:52 pm

Great article. Two points, both to the general matter not the specifics of GCSB and PRISM:
I’ve been pimping this great article on the subject:
It suggests that what we’ve got now is not directly comparable to past lessons, because it is about seeing if technology now allows a new model. Sample quote: “What is being run right now is a vast experiment to see if modern technology has fixed these problems with surveillance and oppressive states. ” (Not, I note, that an experiment needs human experimenters sitting in swivel chairs stroking their cats – I see it as an emergent property of the whole set of interacting systems we have in current Western globalised hypercapitalist societies.)

Timely double-hit from No Right Turn today, both about the UK experience:
The clear lesson is that any apparatus of power will exploit every resource available to protect itself, and will not necessarily feel bound by laws or rules or ethics. Lord Sutch’s hypothetical in the article could be joined by a further extrapolation, where surveillance information is used to actively frame and smear the organisers of resistance, to remove their threat to established power.

Gwynn Compton June 25, 2013 - 12:07 pm

Of further interest to this blog is the op-ed by George Monbiot of The Guardian, which details some fairly serious abuses by their intelligence and police services

Adam June 26, 2013 - 10:55 am

Noam Chomsky wrote the following in the Guardian recently, “…governments will use whatever technology is available to them to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population”. It really struck me and I fear he may be right.

The Ruminator :: Opaque transparency March 2, 2015 - 9:49 am

[…] have already written a long piece on why privacy is so important but nothing’s changed for the better. It’s getting worse. We can’t keep relying […]


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