Kiwis seek reassurance on state surveillance

17:00, Aug 02 2013

For months, the burning question after revelations that the Government Communications Security Bureau had spied on 88 New Zealanders illegally was "who?" Now we know.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman told Parliament this week the 88 were not the activists who marched in the street protesting against the extension of the GCSB's surveillance powers. The targets were "people who are major security threats to our country".

People-smugglers, those with terrorist links, or "potentially" involved with researching weapons of mass destruction were among those who could have been illegally spied on, he said.

"It is naive if anyone thinks there aren't people in this country holding New Zealand passports, both here and travelling overseas, who potentially . . . present a threat to our national security."

It is the first time any member of the Government has shed any light on who is being targeted by the GCSB, or what threats New Zealand faces.

Prime Minister John Key claimed this week that those threats were real - and sinister. He referred to New Zealanders being trained by al Qaeda.


But new research in the United States suggests people may be wearying of the terrorism defence to increasingly intrusive state powers. Mr Key's comments came less than a week after thousands turned out to protest against the GCSB Bill.

They also coincide with the publication of a study by the Pew Research Centre in the United States showing that for the first time in almost a decade, more Americans are worried about infringements of their civil liberties than about a possible terrorist attack.

Experts and officials here agree that the public is increasingly protective of its privacy and more suspicious of government efforts to collect mass data.

Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand chief executive Paul Brislen says there is increasing opposition to the bill and to state surveillance.

"It's just reached that kind of tipping point . . . where enough people have said, ‘Well, hang on, we're not sure we trust you with the powers you have, now you want a massive expansion of these powers.'

"Prove that you can do the job, first of all, and then we'll talk about whether or not you need more capability and also show us what the problem is - what problem are you trying to solve?

"I'd like to know because, if there is something, I'd like our guys to have the powers they need to get on with it. But given their astonishing track record of mismanagement of public records, I don't know that anybody trusts them at the moment."

Information is being collected on a scale that would not long ago have seemed unimaginable. We live much of our lives online and that information - emails, private chats, phone health and financial records - is now apparently only a click away from anyone with the power and desire to look.

We now know the US National Security Agency's previously secret Prism surveillance programme allows access to data held by the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Skype.

Recent high-profile privacy breaches closer to home have included the release of journalist Andrea Vance's phone and building access records to a low-level Government inquiry looking into the leak of a GCSB report; the accidental release of information belonging to 6700 ACC clients; and the availability of Ministry of Social Development client records on a public computer.

People have had enough, Mr Brislen says. "I think people are just getting a little wary of not just the reach of this kind of stuff but also the way it's managed.

"There seems to be an air of ‘she'll be right' about it all, when in fact we need a bit more certainty around that."

IF SURVEILLANCE is so important, why won't the Government say why?

Former spy Rhys Ball, now a Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies lecturer, wonders the same thing. "[The] time has come . . . to demonstrate the value and the worth and the importance of these organisations.

"If society is expected to make some sacrifices in privacies . . . then there's got to be something on the other end as well, rather than people saying ‘You need to trust us'."

People are willing to accept more extreme measures in a climate of fear, such as existed after the 9/11 attacks, but that has since waned, he says.

The tougher measures have proven successful - "things don't go bang" and people assume there was now less risk.

But as US politicians move to curb spying powers, New Zealand is preparing to push through legislation doing the opposite.

The Government's efforts are not going unopposed, however. While the drafting of intelligence legislation is usually bipartisan, Mr Key has struggled to get support for his bill.

In the end, the difference between success and failure came down to UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne, who initially opposed the legislation but relented when Mr Key agreed to a number of amendments, including increased oversight of the GCSB.

In a strange twist, Mr Dunne actually sought assurances from the GCSB and the Security Intelligence Service that he was not spied upon this year as his role in the leak of the Kitteridge report on the GCSB was investigated.

Breaking with their tradition of refusing to confirm or deny, both said they had not.

Mr Dunne admits the public is fed up with surveillance and the way its information is managed, but says the concern is about more than the GCSB bill.

It is driven by growing worries over privacy, revelations about the extent of international spying and the repeated mismanagement of personal information.

The old argument about having nothing to worry about if you had nothing to hide has been thrown out, and we needed to look at the safeguards, he says.

While he refuses to budge in his support of the bill, he believes it is time for a "massive public debate" about information sharing.

NZ First leader Winston Peters says intelligence agencies need to keep some secrets, but "they should tell you the true nature of the threats and the magnitude of them and as soon as possible, because the public now are more aware than they ever have been of this issue".

"You don't need a great imagination to know that this is a very crappy world - it is crappy and it is evil, and you've got to be careful, but that said, we go nowhere if we spit on the liberties of New Zealanders as we go about it and that's the prime minister's conundrum: he's not given us any confidence in his approach or in the draft of this bill as it now stands to support it."

As Mr Ball says, if the Government is not going to inform people, it needs to make more concessions through measures such as increased oversight.

And the public needs to be aware that there will be future threats. "It's much better preventing something from happening than allowing it to happen then having to deal with people asking why you let it happen."

Fairfax Media