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'The Boss' is hell-bent on a Surveillance State

OPINION: Despite massive opposition and serious questions over the new spying laws in front of parliament, Key, is ramming them through.

Ian Apperley
Thu, 11 Jul 2013


John Steinbeck once said; “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of loss of power”, and in Wellington this week, it seems this is true.

Despite massive opposition and serious questions over the new spying laws in front of parliament, The Boss, John Key, is ramming them through.

Let’s be very clear about what these changes do. 

They allow for the wholesale surveillance of the entire New Zealand population and on the surface, appear to bring New Zealand closer to the aims of the PRISM programme.

In a rare show of solidarity, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all come out against the changes. Facebook said the bill allowed for “blunt tools, which have the potential to infringe on civil liberties and constrain economic growth”. All three have also warned that the law could clash with their overseas legal obligations.

Nationally, the opposition has been robust, with industry groups against the law as it is proposed, as well as local citizens, companies, and not for profit organisations. All agree that the law is flawed, that it creates “overreach”, that it may not be that effective against commonly available tools, that it is badly monitored, and that it works toward a full surveillance state where The Boss is in a position of immense power with very little checks and balances.

Their response is. “Trust us.” When we question it, we are told, “You are naïve. We know things that we can’t share with you. We see threats that you cannot. We are your big brother, trust us.”

The problem is that the trust has been badly abused. We know that the GCSB illegally spied on well over eighty New Zealanders. The Urewera Raids, no matter which side you fall on, caused another dent in our national trust.

I sat on a panel at Nethui this week called “State surveillance of online communications.” Along with myself, the panel included Dr Paul Buchanan, an expert on international geopolitics and non-traditional warfare, Michael Wigley, an expert in ICT law, and Sir Bruce Ferguson, ex-Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force and a man who was the director of the GCSB for nearly five years.

Debate covered a multitude of areas, including whether or not New Zealand should leave the “Five Eyes” relationship, a move that Dr Buchanan said would “make the Nuclear issue look like kindergarten”, or whether we should renegotiate our position. A discussion for another article.

There was general consensus on a number of things. Which is unusual when you get a highly decorated military man, an expert on geopolitics, a lawyer, and a technologist in the same room.

Everyone agreed that there was a need for surveillance and though all differed on exactly how much surveillance was ok, all agreed that what was proposed was too much.

There was consensus that the law as proposed allows for too much “overreach”, Michael Wigley pointing out that “extending GCSB and SIS powers runs serious risk of encouraging extra-judicial overreach” along with the idea that “the idea that the existing GCSB law is unclear is patently false, and second-year law student could understand the law.”

There was consensus that the oversight proposed was inadequate. When we took about oversight we are talking about who monitors the GCSB to make sure that they are not up to extra-judicial and, or, illegal activities. Sir Bruce took issue with the appointment of the head of the GCSB and that it should “not be an old chum of John Key’s.”

The consensus was that the legislation was certainly far too important to rush through and at least two of the panel called, again, for an inquiry and a stop to the current legislative process while that is carried out. Something that I personally agree with.

The reasoning by The Boss that this is effectively outsourcing spying and thereby saves money was met with scorn. Dr BuchananPaul pointed out that “this isn’t catering.”

It has long been my view that the law is an ass in its current form. For two reasons.

First, technically, while you may not be able to 100% protect yourself from spies, you can get to about 99.99% with encryption, virtual private networks, and other tools. Sir Bruce pointed out that encryption is breakable, provided you have enough money and resources, which I assume, we don’t. I also think that by stacking your security tools, another article, another day, you can pretty much guarantee 100% anonymity.

The second reason is that the law allows for wholesale surveillance similar to PRISM.

I’ve been thinking about that and it gets my blood pressure up. The real-life analogy of this would be having a policeman permanently stationed in your house (or a 1984 style television) that collected data, “just in case”, because if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear, right?

Wrong. It is not acceptable for The Boss in New Zealand, and The Bosses overseas, who we employ by the way, to introduce a state of surveillance. We have a human right to privacy, each of us chooses, and is responsible for, what we consider private.

Should we have to encrypt our communications? No. Should we have to lock our houses and have burglar alarms? No. The sad reality is that with this kind of law, you need too. Let’s not forget it’s not just the New Zealand state we need to protect our privacy from. It’s every other nation state, hackers, crackers, identify thieves, organised crime, corporates, and agents of espionage. To not take steps to protect your communications is well, kind of leaving your door open and a massive sign out saying “free stuff.”

The other thing is that collecting everything is quite frankly, lazy, inefficient, and likely to blunt the spying capability leading to things slipping through the net in what will be a wall of additional data that will have to be sifted, analysed, and processed. It’s kind of a dumb way to spy.

But The Boss is hell-bent on slamming this law through the process and both Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have a choice to stick to their principles, or to trade away the freedoms and privacy of our great country for some political leverage. It will be a true test of their character and one I hope (but doubt) they will pass.

I finish with the words of the blog Imperator Fish; “Well Mr Key, you know best, we’re just lawyers with a concern for civil liberties, the rule of law, due process, we’ve studies this for years, but you’re The Boss, right?”

Ian Apperley is an independent cloud computing consultant. He posts at He spoke on a panel on surveillance and the GCSB at InternetNZ's Nethui in Wellington this week.

Ian Apperley
Thu, 11 Jul 2013
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'The Boss' is hell-bent on a Surveillance State