Bruce Bisset: Our need to know basis for fear

By Bruce Bisset

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At the least, snooping is morally objectionable.

It's symptomatic of the Kiwi attitude to governance that our spy agency can be shown to be operating illegally by spying on its own citizens, probably at the behest of foreign interests, and the general public reaction is to shrug and ignore it.

For while media, politicians, and interest groups are in a lather over who forgot what and who's telling or not in the unravelling Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) saga, most New Zealanders appear blithely disinterested in whether their intimate secrets are being shared willy-nilly.

Which, in its way, is a profoundly healthy response - if not a very wise one.

Certainly, I've long held to the premise that spooks occasionally "sneak a peek" at my doings and ramblings - and good luck to them - because in believing that to be so I can live without fear.

However, this is not the same as having nothing to fear.

And, in today's high-anxiety milieu, where a "terrorist" can be anyone who does not readily dance to corporate culture and so-called security laws can "disappear" people without word or trace on the say-so of an anonymous bureaucrat, there is in fact plenty for citizens to be worried about.

Sure, that scenario's US-centric, where camps far more secret than Guantanamo Bay are estimated to already contain more than a thousand such "anonymous" political prisoners - but they're not necessarily American.

Moreover the old maxim about law-abiding citizens having nothing to fear from their government has proved time and again a crude justification for surveillance and repression. Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler used it to placate Jews into "co-operating" with Nazism; British PM John Major used it in the 1990s to justify "Big Brother" data networks; chillingly John Key has now used it to excuse the GCSB's spying on us.

At the least, snooping is morally objectionable, even if you think some form of surveillance serves a greater good.

First, because the rules may change; once in place, the level and subject of surveillance you agree to today could be used for very different purposes, that you do not agree with, tomorrow.

Second, because it's not you who determines whether you have something to fear. Data alone (even if it's correct data) cannot explain why something occurs; an anonymous bureaucrat may red-flag a regular activity that has an innocent explanation.

Third, because society only progresses when laws are broken. The sanctioning of gay marriage could not have happened if present surveillance techniques had been available 40-odd years ago when homosexuality was illegal, because the sexual-equality groups - "organised crime" - would not have been able to coalesce.

And fourthly, because privacy is a basic human need deserving of respect, not intrusion.

Given this, you would think a liberal democracy would have strict protocols in place for all spy activities. Sadly, we do not: neither the GCSB nor its inspector-general are answerable to Parliament; only to a stand-alone committee.

The GCSB has illegally spied on 88 citizens (that we know of) since the law change forbidding them to do so was effected in 2003 - yet is being allowed to get away with this without inquiry, on the basis they were merely "helping out" other agencies like Police and the SIS.

Worse, the law is now to be changed to allow these practices to continue; a reward for bad behaviour, as Green co-leader Russel Norman put it.

When you add in the Kim Dotcom fiasco and John Key's childhood mate being "tapped" as GCSB Director, even with our "she'll be right" attitude it's a wonder more folk aren't spooked at the prospect of these cloistered cowboys prying unfettered into our lives.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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