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Metadata is no joke, and neither are these Bills

Two very important Bills are on the table: the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill (the GCSB Bill) and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Surveillance) Bill (the TICS Bill).

Together, these Bills would permit a handful of people, without independent oversight, to further empower GCSB to invade your privacy, online (and off, for that matter) in order to protect New Zealand’s national security, international relations, general well-being and economic well-being.

Pretty broad.

I've had a chat with a number of people outside of my line of work about these Bills and I am surprised by the average reaction: yes, I've heard about it, but I don't really care about it.

I understand that the majority of New Zealanders don't think about The Internet for their job (like me, everyday). But, this is a moment where New Zealanders have to think about The Internet for their society.

Have you ever seen a democratic society tacitly accept government surveillance of its private communications?

I chalk this up to unawareness. I reckon that most New Zealanders just haven't set time aside to think about what the Internet says about them when they use it, or who is listening. Most of us communicate our lives over it. We'll take Joe, for example, whose smartphone advertises his name, the names of his contacts, the phone numbers he's called, received or missed, his text messages, the websites he's pulled up, the make and model of his device - all of this, to servers somewhere. Networks triangulate his location, wherefrom he Skypes or FaceTimes someone, or shares his Bejewelled scores on Facebook (whatever Joe does).

Imagine that Joe uses his phone all the time, like most of us do. His metadata grows throughout the day, becoming taller, wider, trailing him around, like a shadow. If Joe is interesting enough, the GCSB could assemble a metadata palate, from which it could paint - illustrate - his entire day. This is why, when people dismiss metadata as something semantically less protectable under privacy norms than actual communications, they’re either uninformed, disingenuous or just confused.

The metadata exercise is like watching a person, where they go, who they talk to, what they buy, but not listening to what they say or hear. You can infer a lot from observation alone. The Kitteridge Report shows that the GCSB collected metadata on New Zealanders. Metadata can be just as revealing as the communication that it surrounds.

You have to ask yourself if you would feel uncomfortable with a stranger listening in on your life. And if that stranger were a government? Finally, if you feel this is outside the realm of possibility, have you read the news? Or the Bills?

My best friend was born in Bulgaria. His family risked their lives fleeing the communist regime, first to Africa, then to Western Europe, before seeking political asylum in the States. I was talking to him on Skype the other day and he told me about his mother’s reaction to Prism. This wonderfully astute and strong woman broke into laughter and said “How naive are you to think that the Government isn’t spying on you? Or that the Government would not do what it promises that it would not do?”

But communist states were a completely different story than the US. The NSA would only look into the worst situations. It would not look beyond what it is supposed to.

I can hear her reply, generous, considering. “Right, Uncle Sam will only follow the proper rules and procedures – light touch, no more data gathered than necessary. He’d be a gentleman. Like Sherlock Holmes.”

New Zealanders owe it to themselves to take a moment and think about these things. It may help to consider it as a spectrum: on one side you have National Security, on the other you have Privacy. The point of the law is not only to strike a balance between the two, but to ensure that wherever that balance is struck, that point cannot be moved, that it is guaranteed to be immobile by the rule of law. When those in power are able to push that point towards the National Security end without notice and without permission, you’re moving away from democracy and towards something else.

The Kitteridge report states that the GCSB needs “robust internal systems and effective external oversight so that the public can be confident in the lawfulness of those operations.”

The GCSB Bill provides the former, but not the latter.

The Bills combine to produce a result diametrically opposed to an open and uncaptureable Internet and they challenge the principle that human rights should apply online.

The question is: What are New Zealanders going to do about it?

Susan Chalmers is policy lead for InterentNZ, the non-profit that adminsters the .nz domain and advocates for an open, uncapaturable internet.

More by Susan Chalmers

Comments and questions

The start of John Key's police state.

It is Russel Norman's police state that I worry about if he ever gets near the levers of power. Just look at his communist background in Australia and the strident anti-development agenda of the Greens.

It's anybody's police state, mate. And I think Russel is the least of your worries, as he's on the record for wanting less, not more, spying and intrusion into private citizens' affairs. Fascism begins on the right of the political spectrum, like what is happening here and now.

Tell that to all the countries that were behind the Iron Curtain.

The problem with Kiwis is life is all too cruisy and we trust in politicians and bureaucrats far too readily.
Kim Dotcom's recent speech and the video on NBR should have been a wake-up call to the IT industry; but perhaps, like the media, too many are employed in government associated work to risk speaking out.

The political Left and Right both love police states (history have proven that much).

When we consider the buffoons who all too commonly inhabit our halls of power - do we really want these people to have the capabilities to have access to comprehensive information on our every move and conversation? If not, we should strongly resist the creation of infrastructure (including everything referred to in this column) that can enable this sort of surveillance.

Will John Key's legacy be one of eroding New Zealanders' right to privacy?

Yep, but it is by analysing the metadata that many terrorists have been caught - e.g., Boston bombers - plots have been avoided and terrorist groups have been dismantled. If one is considered a person of interest, the analysis of this data may give an indication if it is worth giving this person more than just attention or if this person should be taken off the interest list. Is this destroying democracy or protecting it?

Caught? Before or after they had injured and maimed innocent civilians? All the metadata in the world didn't prevent anything. If you think it's worth giving up YOUR freedoms for the illusion of safety, fine. Don't give up MINE.

The Boston bombings were carried out by Craft International. Google
Craft Boston bombing.

Think of a child today who just got his first iPod. Next year it will be an iPhone and then an iPad or a laptop when they go to high school. Their whole lives will be recorded in electronic media from a very early age. Games, diaries, health problems, mind experiments, jokes, social faux-pas, first loves, internet searches about sexuality ... do we really want to open all this up to prying govt. dept. eyes?

I used to have respect for Jon Key now I despise what he is becoming and who he represents. Does he think of the legacy he is leaving behind for his grand-children to grow up in a surveillance state?

NB: post eastern bloc members of the society were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the ever-present, over-bearing Stasi and associated govt. agencies.

There is a tangible public health issue when subjecting humans to ever-present surveillance. Similar to psychological reactions for caged animal behaviours or prisoners. It is not clear what are the net cost-benefits of these kinds of societal experiments in mass control. And is there no room left for trusting in free will and the basic goodness of humanity in a godless society?

Why are we presumed to be guilty by our govt. that they need to spy on us?

You already traded your freedom for security in a zillion ways. Your privacy went with it as soon as you handed responsibility to your government.

That reminds me, I must txt my better half to swing by and pick up some milk and bread tonight.

Call it apathy (myself included), but I don't think you can say its due to the fact we trust the politicians! They continually fill the bottom ranks of the least trusted NZers.

If you think it may be happening, it is already happening. NSA and GCHQ have been doing it for years with the assistance of GCSB and the Australia's equivalent organisation set up by GCHQ in the 1950s.

I just don't understand all of the hype and fear-mongering around this. Internet monitoring is nothing new.

What does a law-abiding citizen have to fear?

An out of control jack-booted little thug in the bureaucracy who has it it in for YOU ... yes you and your family and everything they have ever done will be dragged up if you upset them in any way.


The nothing to hide nothing to fear crowd always astonish me with their belief that they actually have no secrets and that their life is an open book that they would allow anyone full access to.
Would you be ok to post your entire medical history online ? Would you be ok to post every instant message chat and every email online in the open for anyone to read? Would you be ok to have a list of every website that you visit, and when you visited it posted online?
How about an interactive map showing your movements ? How about your salary information, where you shopped, what you brought and from whom? If you let the government away with watching you online its not much of a stretch for them to become more intrusive into your lives. They will push this agenda as far as you will allow them.
Private companies put a cost on your personal information, so its about time that you put a cost on it too, that goes for all of New Zealand.

You may have nothing to fear at all, but consider this scenario. You are a Nat supporter (I am not saying you are ... this is a scenario, OK) and there is currently a Nat government. All hunky dory. One year a Labour government gets in and you decide you do not like their policies and join a pressure group. You write emails to your local MP. You attend meetings and receive updates on an email list. You might be perceived as having something to hide then and end up having your metadata sifted through and acted on. It could be vice versa for another person. What about your children, your partner? What if they hold different views to you? What if one of you changes your political or religious view at some point in your lifetime? Who knows what any of us might have to "fear" any any particular point in time?

As someone who has been working for years to try to "wake people up", I share Susan Chalmers' frustration with the average Kiwi's lack of concern about privacy issues. The sad truth is that people usually don't give a hoot about such matters until their own ox is being gored. There are many people who have become activists for one cause or another only after they or someone they care about has been adversely affected by corporate and/or government malfeasance.

That said, most people have nothing to worry about, at least in the near term. Joe Bloggs is surveilled by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., mainly because they want to sell Joe their stuff. This is data collection as market research.

Others, like perennial opposition politicians (Keith Locke), outside-the-box entrepreneurs (Kim Dotcom) and political activists (Names Redacted) are spied upon in order to somehow hamper their activities.

The main concern, though, is the control that spymasters have over our government politicians, Kiwi and elsewhere. NSA whistleblower Russ Tice testifies that he personally saw evidence in 2004 of data collection on then Senator Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. In the case of government appointees, squeaky-clean nominees are rejected while compromised candidates are given a pass. In other words, only "made men" (and women) are allowed to rise to the top, whereupon they are controlled by the spymasters. How else can you explain the near unanimous support of the PATRIOT act and other draconian legislation?

In the case of our own Prime Minister, he is either a zombie (doodling yesterday), or a controlled thug (his treatment of Kim Dotcom today). In either case, he is not acting as an independent man of conscience, nor does he represent the best interests of New Zealanders.

Welcome to the world of paranoia. While I would feel uncomfortable if I thought I was being spied on, I don't believe I am ever likely to do anything to place myself in that situation. On the other hand there could be those among us who pose a potential threat to the freedoms we enjoy and for whom a little bit of extra surveillance is well justified.

Recent ‘terrorist’ attacks, such as the Boston bombing and the Woolwich murder, have occurred despite the multi-billion dollar spying and security apparatus. In these and other ‘terrorist’ attacks the suspects were known to the security services but somehow they escaped detection in time.
I believe that future terrorist attacks will occur no matter how much our spying laws are enhanced nor how much money is spent on security.
We need to ask whether these enhanced spying laws and security measures are to protect us or to protect the real terrorists by going after honest whistle-blowers.

We are still hidden away down at the bottom end of the World and the vast majority have no idea of the gravity of what is really happening in the Middle East, the US or in Europe. If one follows the standard media there is nothing that will be learned from this accept that all is well with not a worry in the World. People are waking up over there but they have a huge head start on us and are feeling the pain and are understanding the reality of a vastly changing World. I fear until we too feel this pain the majority will just go on living as if there is no tomorrow totally trusting our government and all their agencies. The GCSB Bill is just part 1 of the catch up and it will go through because Mr & Mrs Average have faith that it will catch nasty terrorists and that is all good! Should finish by saying the only terrorists that have entered New Zealand and carried out a terrorist act in the last 100 years or so were the French blowing up and sinking the Rainbow Warrior!

Your last point is one that we should keep repeating, and you might add the method successfully used to capture the terrorists - good ol' honest police work, not überall surveillance of every New Zealander.

We should also ask questions about "foiled terrorist plots". The New York Times had an article last year that pointed out that the majority of terrorist plots were "hatched by the FBI". If the URL below doesn't work, just Google
terrorist plots
and one of your first choices that pops up will be
terrorist plots hatched by the fbi

I would like every NZ"er to e.mail John Key's office and let him know that we don't want the bill, At all. I think we have been complicit in passing information on to the US for quite some time now. I wasn't comfortable with that either. Money spent on implementing this bill is a waste of our money. and adds nothing to the quality of life or country. John Keys is part of the old problems of the world, power and greed. (put that in your data file) I didn't trust him from the day he was put forward for Prime Minister, I said to my family that he was two faced and people would regret voting National in. people have short memories. when it comes to politics , We as a contry are far to complacent. we are the keepers for future generations and we should be voicing our opinions of how we want NZ to be, rather than letting a group people sell us out because they are busy playing the political pawn for other countries.