It appears our biggest domestic terror threat is either Tame Iti's training camps or Dotcom's (alleged) copyright infringements. I've got more to fear from a prostate exam than from whatever our collective security apparatus is protecting us from.
Still, the issue is topical. As the law stands, the SIS or police can spy on you or me if they get an interception warrant from a judge. Potentially, this can include aggregated information, the "metadata" at the heart of Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA in the US.
The electronic trail we create as we use our phones and computers could be collated and analysed. The GCSB cannot, even with a warrant, spy on citizens or legal residents; they are restricted to foreigners.
For some unexplained reason the GCSB has the good gear and smart kids. The domestic agencies are more Jacques Clouseau than James Bond but because not all threats come from foreigners, the Government is updating the law. The new security bill before Parliament can be distilled to two changes:
The GCSB can legally spy on New Zealanders on a contract basis for domestic agencies that have a valid interception warrant.
The GCSB must approve new telecommunications infrastructure to ensure that they can spy on us if needed.
Civil libertarians fret that we are surrendering privacy and seem especially exercised that the GCSB will have access to domestic intelligence. Their fears seem unfounded.
No data can be collected without a judicial warrant and nothing collected illegally can be used in a court. The GCSB will not be publishing your browser history online or sending your wife copies of your text messages.
I do not care which set of public servants collects the data needed to prevent a terrorist attack and I definitely do not care about metadata. I'd not even heard the term until last month.
There appears to be an unspoken fear that the GCSB could be used as an agent of state repression, which is perhaps true but the same could be said of the police. A hammer in the wrong hands is dangerous but it would be difficult to build a house without one.
As a libertarian, I'm wary of government departments that spy on their people and am sceptical about the competence of those who work for them. Yet I am not opposed to the state collecting information to prevent some jihadist or French spy blowing themselves or others up.
One of the enduring images from the post 9/11 period was Richard Clarke, a senior security bureaucrat, apologising before Congress. "Your government failed you," Clarke stated. Clarke was acknowledging that national security is important, that threats are real and citizens pay for national security. We have a right to expect results. Giving the GCSB less surveillance power than we surrender to Google and Facebook is as sensible as blinding a guide dog.