Kathleen M Kuehn: New Zealand risks being complicit in Trump Administration abuses

The GCSB-run secure communication base at Waihopai, in Marlborough.  Under US directives, New Zealand contributes ...

The GCSB-run secure communication base at Waihopai, in Marlborough. Under US directives, New Zealand contributes foreign intelligence in exchange for access to its global surveillance infrastructure.

OPINION: New Zealand privacy advocates and civil libertarians have been curiously subdued on the future of surveillance, privacy and internet freedom under the forthcoming Donald Trump presidency. But if Trump's campaign trail and recent staffing decisions are any indication of what's to come, a wait-and-see approach may not be in New Zealand's best interest.

Trump is building an administration that clearly prioritises opaque 'national security' concerns over democratic rights and freedoms. At the top of his policy goals is the elimination of 'intrusive regulation', which he intends to repeal by lining his Cabinet with officials who hold similar views. Top intelligence roles have already been handed to vocal supporters of the National Security Agency's  controversial mass surveillance programmes exposed by Edward Snowden. Mike Pompeo,  the next CIA director, staunchly opposes restrictions on data collection and is expected to overturn the few limits placed on digital surveillance since the 2013 Snowden leaks.

Trump unapologetically supports the discriminatory surveillance of people of colour, activists, immigrants and certain religious groups. He has advocated for watch lists, a registry system for Muslims and the targeted surveillance of "certain mosques". In Trump's own words, "I want surveillance of these people, I want surveillance if we have to, and I don't care."

If Trump starts pushing the boundaries on surveillance, what does this mean for New Zealand? We already actively support America's surveillance agenda as a partner in the 'Five Eyes' security alliance with the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Under US directives, we contribute foreign intelligence in exchange for access to its global surveillance infrastructure.

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Our nation is directly implicated in Trump's rhetoric around security and surveillance policy for this reason. The surveillance culture will shift under Trump, as will how our foreign intelligence agencies are expected to respond.

For those who believe Five Eyes is solely about national security, it's worth revisiting the Snowden files, which show that New Zealand continues to spy on friendly Pacific nations for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism, serious crimes or direct security threats. Using intelligence resources to spy on behalf of a foreign administration that zealously supports torture of and systematic discrimination against religious, ethnic and immigrant populations requires that New Zealanders now ask whether this is a surveillance and security regime it should continue to support.    

If that's not convincing, consider how Trump's ideological positioning also threatens a free and open internet. He not only opposes net neutrality (the principle that promotes equal access to all internet content), but global internet governance (he favours US government control). Trump has it in for the tech industry, too. He's promised to punish US companies that enhance encryption standards. Many critics worry about future mandates that might require tech companies to build government backdoor access into products.

Such moves compromise security, encryption and other data protections for consumers globally. As so many of the world's most popular websites, platforms and applications are US-based, decisions around encryption, surveillance and security have impacts far beyond Trump's America. The US government currently subsidises many of the popular encryption tools and security software built into popular apps like WhatsApp, Facebook and Google.

Revoking government subsidies for these developments affects not just the tech companies making them, but the more than one billion people using these apps globally. These protective mechanisms, though certainly not fool-proof, enable citizens of more repressive countries to circumvent restrictive speech laws or other forms of abuse. They are tools essential to internet freedom.

The consequences for New Zealanders under a Trump presidency are thus far-reaching and warrant a re-evaluation of our US security and trade relations. John Key's resignation presents a timely opportunity for doing so. A new prime minister can clean the slate by reprioritising democratic values over long-standing Western commitments by refusing to co-operate with any surveillance or censorship practices that violate international human rights principles.

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At its most basic, this could mean terminating surveillance in the South Pacific, instituting new vigorous assessment protocols for US intelligence reports and refusing to turn over data requests lacking explicit justification to imminent national security threats. 

Meanwhile, New Zealand companies and organisations should begin an immediate re-evaluation of their data storage policies, particularly those storing consumer data on US- based servers.

The future of privacy and security in New Zealand faces new risks under Trump. Doing nothing both symbolises our compliance and sanctions the many abuses a Trump presidency seems intent on legislating. We must collectively decide how far we are willing to go for a Trump-led security regime before his Administration starts overturning established democratic and diplomatic norms.

Kathleen M. Kuehn is a lecturer in media studies at Victoria University of Wellington and author of The Post-Snowden Era: Mass Surveillance and Privacy in New Zealand.

 - The Dominion Post


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