GCSB surveillance a red herring

By Garth George

1 comment

.When the Human Rights Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the New Zealand Law Society take the trouble to make submissions on the proposed changes to laws governing surveillance of citizens, then it is incumbent upon members of the parliamentary committee hearing them to take serious notice.

These are independent, non-political organisations that are charged with the protection of the rights of the public and the upholding of both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Then there is the fact that almost all the opposition parties in Parliament oppose the proposed amendments as they stand.

More importantly, comprehensive polls show that the majority of the public at large are concerned about the legislation extending the Government Communication Security Bureau's powers to spy on New Zealanders.

The bill expands the legal powers of the GCSB, New Zealand's foreign intelligence agency, to spy on New Zealanders and prevent cyber threats to important private-sector infrastructure as well as government communications.

The Human Rights Commission submitted that the controversial legislation extending the GCSB's powers to spy on New Zealanders lacked sufficient checks against abuse of power or adequate transparency and accountability.

Chief human rights commissioner David Rutherford said the commission employed its rarely-used right to issue a report directly to the Prime Minister, "due to the seriousness of the proposed bills' measures and the need for proper oversight of the surveillance activities of intelligence agencies".

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff called for a delay in the passage of the legislation because more time was needed to be given to considering oversight.

"Effective oversight of [the collection and use of data by intelligence agencies] is required to ensure that it is collected and used appropriately, not as the tool of mass surveillance that it has the capacity to be, if unchecked," she said.

The Law Society's Dr Rodney Harrison, QC, submitted that ordinary MPs and the public deserved to know exactly what kind of activities the GCSB will be undertaking under the law to expand its legal powers, adding that claims that the oversight of the intelligence agency was increased under the bill were meaningless.

So Prime Minister John Key, whoever chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has heard submissions on the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill, had better climb off his legislative bulldozer, take a deep breath, and set aside the proposed law changes until they can be examined more fully.

However, I am far more concerned about the widespread and apparently legal surveillance of citizens all day and every day by government departments and agencies, banks, businesses and industries and others.

For instance, it was reported this week that identification numbers attached to children as young as 3 could be used to track and punish their parents.

The ID system will be in operation next year, making it possible for information to be passed from kindergartens to the Government agency that monitors beneficiaries. Some 190,000 children in early childhood education will be assigned a national student number, with providers collecting information including each child's daily attendance.

Will they carry a number all their lives?

There are CCTV cameras everywhere watching us; our cellphones can be monitored to tell authorities exactly where we are; our homes can be photographed and placed on the internet; and police can ferret out our personal details from any number of sources.

Personal information about us is being recorded somewhere 24/7 and most of us are blithely unaware of it. For instance, drivers' licences, eftpos and credit cards, television and internet use invariably leave a trace.

Alongside these, GCSB surveillance is merely a red herring.

What we really need is a full Royal Commission of Inquiry into every aspect of citizens' rapidly-diminishing rights to privacy and personal freedom - and the sooner the better.


  • garth.george@hotmail.com

- Bay of Plenty Times

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