Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Trust honest John to keep spy laws on the level

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Joh Key said he intends to restrict the Government's spy agency from accessing the content of New Zealanders' communications, including emails, once the bill is passed. Photo / Dean Purcell
Joh Key said he intends to restrict the Government's spy agency from accessing the content of New Zealanders' communications, including emails, once the bill is passed. Photo / Dean Purcell

It's as though we're living in the middle of an episode of the classic British radio farce The Goon Show. In an endeavour to quell widespread debate over the true meaning of the controversial GCSB Bill, Prime Minister John Key has promised to lead the third reading debate in Parliament today by explaining to anyone listening, both now and into the future, what he means it to mean.

His office late last week said he would usher the bill through its final stages because when judges some time in the future are trying to make head or tail of its confusing language, it is customary for them to use parliamentary debates to interpret the law.

Why, you might ask, if the bill is so confusing that the Prime Minister feels the need to leave hints to future judges of what he intended the law to say, doesn't he just pause the process and rewrite it in plain and unambiguous English. Instead, he's taking a lesson from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy V, who more than 2000 years ago felt moved to issue an edict, not just in his native language but inscribed in hieroglyphs and ancient Greek as well.

Perhaps, like Mr Key, King Ptolemy worried that future generations wouldn't fathom the double Dutch of the original but would understand the Greek. And so they did.

John Key's statement, provided to the Herald after questioning, said the bill authorised him to impose any conditions he wants on a cyber security warrant and that he intends to restrict the Government's spy agency from accessing the content of New Zealanders' communications, including emails.

The statement added that if the GCSB detected a serious cyber intrusion, it would have to apply for an extra warrant to look at the content. It added that Mr Key would expect the GCSB to get the individual's consent unless there were very good reasons not to do so.

It was meant to be reassuring to his critics, but surely if Mr Key doesn't want his spies from the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders' emails, he should amend the bill accordingly, not ask us to trust him to do the right thing each time they seek permission. After all, who knows, he could disappear down a seismic crack along the Wellington faultline tomorrow and never be heard of again. Would his heir apparent, Judith "Crusher" Collins, be as "soft" on civil liberty concerns?

His plea for us to trust him is even less reassuring with the weekend revelations by former Internet NZ chief executive Vikram Kumar, in the National Business Review, that under companion legislation before the House, all internet service providers, including Skype, Google Talk and Apple's FaceTime and iMessage, will have to make their networks "interceptable" at the minister's discretion.

It had already been revealed that it would be mandatory for telecommunications network operators like Telecom and Vodafone to make their networks interceptable if Big Brother so ordered.

Mr Kumar says it was completely unexpected to discover that the relevant minister could also demand that downline "service providers" provide real-time access to authorised surveillance agencies, including the SIS, GCSB, the police "and any government department declared to be one for that purpose".

The ministerial directive will be secret. Mr Kumar says it is unclear whether service providers will be able to publicise the fact that the spies have tapped into their service. Of course that could mean commercial suicide if they did, though in the United States, one provider caught by identical legislation chose not to comply with an identical directive, electing to close down instead.

This month Ladar Levison, the owner of US email service Lavabit, wrote to his clients: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States."

This followed an approach from the US National Security Agency demanding the same access to Lavabit's customers' emails that it has already extorted from big American internet companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft.

While that is going on in the US, in Britain the partner of a Guardian journalist who exposed mass American surveillance programmes that the GCSB Bill seems intent on apeing was held for nine hours at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act. His phone, laptop, memory sticks and other electronic data were confiscated, but he was released without charge.

This is the road the GCSB Bill is rushing us down, and all Mr Key can say is trust me, and think of something important like snapper quotas.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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