Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

New spy laws comparable to Big Brother

Planned changes for surveillance a step towards totalitarianism, claims professor

The Government Communications Security Bureau illegally spied on Kim Dotcom and possibly 85 other New Zealanders. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Government Communications Security Bureau illegally spied on Kim Dotcom and possibly 85 other New Zealanders. Photo / Brett Phibbs

New laws to allow spying on New Zealand citizens is a step towards totalitarianism, says a professor of cyber security and forensics.

"The idea of placing innocent citizens under constant surveillance is one definition of totalitarianism," Hank Wolfe, an associate professor in the Information Science Department of Otago University's School of Business told the Herald. "It will inhibit free thought and association. This has been demonstrated historically time and again where repressive totalitarian regimes have installed pervasive surveillance to watch citizens."

Dr Wolfe was responding to Prime Minister John Key's announcement that the legislation governing the secret service will be extended to allow the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to spy on New Zealanders. The move follows revelations that the agency may have illegally spied on 85 New Zealanders besides Kim Dotcom, a New Zealand resident who was bugged at the request of US agencies.

Mr Key last week said new powers were required in a changing security environment. There had, he said, been attempts to steal technology that could be used to create and guide weapons of mass destruction and that there were people in New Zealand with links to offshore terrorist groups.

Dr Wolfe, a security expert who worked for the US Government before emigrating 35 years ago, said: "Why do we want to allow spying on our citizens? There are people everywhere who are sympathisers of something or other that is unpopular. The whole idea of the law is innocent until proven guilty. Surveilling the innocent - is that what we do to protect anyone or is that what we do in totalitarian society?"

The police have to apply to a court and present prime facie evidence of wrongdoing to get a warrant from a judge. "That's the oversight to ensure innocent people are not getting abused," Dr Wolfe said.

The Prime Minister's office referred the Herald to a briefing paper that said the basic premise that the GCSB not spy on New Zealanders would only apply to its "foreign intelligence activities". This would still mean that the surveillance of Kim Dotcom would still be illegal but it would be able to spy on Kiwis in its other roles of "information assurance and cooperation and assistance [to the SIS, Defence and police]".

Safeguards would be met by beefing up the oversight role of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who would be able to initiate its own inquiries. The inspector would report findings to the Prime Minister who could keep it secret.

Dr Wolfe said he was concerned to see the erosion of privacy throughout the world which was driven by technology and excused by fear. "The whole idea of article 12 of the universal declaration of human rights [freedom of interference of privacy, family, home, correspondence] is being destroyed.

"We have to protect everybody [was the rationale]. We are going to make you more secure by taking away your freedoms? I don't feel more secure when I am not free. I feel less secure when I'm not free."

The weapons of mass destruction comment was "pap".

Dr Wolfe said he thought the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom was a "travesty".

The vast majority of cyber attacks were commercially motivated, with China followed by the US, the biggest offenders. Like most countries, New Zealand would have information of interest, Dr Wolfe said.

If it was weapons-related, Chinese hackers would relay it to the military and intelligence sectors. But the GCSB was already sanctioned to combat this.

- NZ Herald

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