Someone to watch over us

A little item of news dropped into the paper recently which might be something to bear in mind if you're considering an evening of music, beers and a little assault and battery in Bridge St tonight.

You might remember eight new surveillance cameras went up in the city last year, paid for by the Nelson City Council, in time for the Rugby World Cup; and now police have installed another eight, switched on and assiduously watched by Nelson Community Patrol volunteers on Friday and Saturday nights - an activity surely so dull that I hope they're allowed to bring popcorn and M&Ms.

The new cameras are meant to alert police to antisocial behaviour early and help people feel safer, Nelson community police supervisor Sergeant Mal Drummond told the Nelson Mail. The images are gone after 60 days.

So far, so normal. But around the same time the cameras were installed my partner dragged me along to watch The Bourne Legacy, the fourth incarnation in the blatantly money-grubbing yet not unentertaining series based on the airport novels of the late Robert Ludlum.

Matt Damon starred in the first three films, but refused to make a fourth, so the mantle has fallen to Jeremy Renner. And fallen, it has. There were six more Bourne titles published after Ludlum's death, written by author, reiki master and Japanese maple collector Eric Van Lustbader, and this is the first of those; so expect more big dumb films to come.

Anyway, if you've seen the franchise you know the basic storyline: conspiracy-ensnared hero is wanted by powerful evil people, escapes using brute wits and force, is tracked down by commandeering of surveillance cameras and other meticulous hi-tech means, escapes. Repeat, adding a coda when he gets the girl.

Suffering through 135 minutes, grateful for my popcorn mixed with M&Ms, and badly missing Matt Damon, I found myself wondering just how difficult it would be to escape from the government if you really needed to. These days we are monitored at every step - not so much in New Zealand, but in the confines of your average big-city transport and shopping network, every movement is recorded somewhere in the name of public safety.

You cannot just disappear as you might once have been able to 100 years ago. Just look at those passionate British runaways, maths teacher Jeremy Forrest and his 15-year-old student Megan Stammers. They found it was nigh impossible to melt into France when CCTV cameras caught them on a ferry from Dover to Calais, and Forrest was frog-marched back to England.

On Monday, the Government's Search and Surveillance Act came into force. It gives police and other officers powers to search or keep people under surveillance without a warrant in situations of emergency or urgency, and allows more government agencies to carry out surveillance.

Some people are worrying that the legislation creates a police state and is another nail in the coffin of civil liberty and privacy, which is compounded by the daily revelations about the Government illegally spying on internet millionaire Kim Dotcom.

It all came to a head this week when I spent several hours with an interviewer answering questions for Statistics New Zealand's annual household economic survey. I was one of the lucky randomly chosen few, and the information-gathering process caused no end of consternation in our household as we struggled to gather receipts, phone and electricity bills, vehicle, mortgage, tax, student loan, and insurance info, flights and holiday details, and every incidence of spending over $200 in the past year, not to mention the two-week spending diary I'm filling in at the moment, which so far consists mostly of chocolate bars.

I asked the interviewer if anyone ever refused this onerous task, as part of me very much wanted to join them. One woman had, she said, on the grounds that it was an invasion of privacy - but all that meant was a visit from a supervisor, who would no doubt reassure her that her information was safe. There's a $500 fine for flat-out declining.

I was aghast - but then, of course, if I was worried about Big Brother I'd stop using the internet or my mobile phone. I requested my Facebook data this week, a simple download that left me astonished about how much of me I'd unthinkingly put online.

Scrolling through the info was like reading a script of my life for the past five years. A simple password guess and I'd be extremely easy either to find or impersonate. The veil of privacy in the electronic world is so sheer as to be non-existent.

Of course, there's nothing to worry about unless you've done something wrong. Anyone know how I can get hold of Jason Bourne?