We're snooping on the Pacific...so what?


I know I should care. I know as a cynic, a sceptic and someone willing to think the worst of everyone, that every time Nicky Hager offers us another scoop about the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) I should be just as appalled as my pinko liberal mates.

I know that illegal spying by government intelligence agencies can be the thin end of the wedge in undermining a democracy and that dictatorships and totalitarian regimes survive because of their ruthless spooks.

I know intelligence gathering can be an insidious practice full of potential pitfalls.

I realise people can be blackmailed by threats of exposing private information and I'm aware such information can be misused by individual security personnel.

I know the more information a government has on its citizens, the easier it is for it to manipulate opinion and perpetrate propaganda. No-one needs to tell me about the value of privacy and how it should be respected by the authorities.

I appreciate constant vigilance is the price of freedom and we should always be suspicious of a government trying to increase its ability to snoop and poke its nose into our lives.

And yet, I, again, wasn't too excited when we had another breathless exclusive last week, with Hager alleging documents showed the government spied on its Pacific partners and by default New Zealand citizens in those countries.

There could be any number of reasons for this apathy that I seem to share with the rest of the country's ordinary citizens.

None of what is alleged is particularly surprising. Democracies rely on intelligence in the same way that dictatorships do. It's what they do with it that is the question.

For instance, I am not in the least surprised New Zealand is spying on its Pacific cousins and passing useful information to the United States.

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The Pacific is a sad collection of poor misfit states often run by corrupt leaders and groups who would not be granted power in a properly functioning democracy. Its poverty makes its states easy prey for countries with agendas not necessarily favourable to NZ. Nor is there anything terribly shocking in the fact we are working with the Americans. Until America stops being a useful ally and good fit with our priorities internationally, we should do our best to be a loyal friend.

Then we have the somewhat academic nature of the allegations. Intelligence snooping activities occur in far away bases run by people we don't know, doing things we don't have a clear idea about.

The evils they are accused of perpetrating don't appear to have any obvious victims. We haven't heard from the girlfriend who finds out her Government employee boyfriend has been monitoring her cellphone or the harmless activist who discovers the Government knows all about his purchases from Amazon or the public service job applicant who is unsuccessful because one of her communications has been wrongly coded.

Yes various governments might feel a bit miffed until they are reminded they are doing exactly the same. And because most people don't have anything to hide, they wonder why surveillance is worth getting upset about. If their information is caught in a big indiscriminate collection of data, then it's nothing personal. Breaches of privacy are a pretty good reason for getting concerned but most people assume, surely, that their communications can be easily snooped on. It's a vulnerability of modern technology.

They might also wonder what surveillance achieves in an age when people who want their communications kept secret know what to do, whether its encryption or staying off the internet altogether.

Criminals have worked that out so it shouldn't be too hard for sophisticated terrorists. To stay hidden, Osama Bin Laden used couriers not cellphones or the internet.

The milk powder scare this week shows how one rogue protester can still hold the country to ransom by using a letter, NZ Post and old fashioned extortion.

If we have mass surveillance, as alleged, it's not very effective. Maybe we need more.

Hager often gives the impression that only he, the lone crusader, stands between our rights and freedoms and the jackbooted reign of a callous right wing government ready to snatch them away.

Perhaps I am being overly trusting, but I'm prepared to give the system and the Government we elected a bit more credit.

On the other hand it's good to have Nicky Hager and his ilk acting as our canaries in the mine, even if they sing a little too loudly too often.

I hardly ever go to the theatre or the orchestra but I think it's healthy we have them. In the same way the Hagers of this world serve a valuable end.

 - The Press


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