Tim McBride: Learning to live in world of suspicion

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Society is increasingly under surveillance — but is our added safety worth loss of privacy?
Some argue the loss of anonymity from being under surveillance has a chilling effect on people's openness and creativity. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Some argue the loss of anonymity from being under surveillance has a chilling effect on people's openness and creativity. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Surveillance is back in the news again now that the Government has received the Independent Review of Intelligence and Security Services by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy. Within a few months there may well be a new law in place with enhanced surveillance capacity for our intelligence agencies.

So, what is "surveillance"? Why should we be concerned about it? Our Law Commission considered that surveillance largely involves "the use of devices to monitor, observe, or record people's actions or communications".

Surveillance is not new. It's been an aspect of organised societies, such as the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians, since their inception. Surveillance is an important aspect of modern bureaucratic systems. It is intended to encourage compliance with the current social order. Those who challenge that social order, for example, by advocating or engaging in acts of possible civil disobedience to highlight their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership are undoubtedly under official surveillance.

So should we be concerned about ever-increasing surveillance? Or should we simply accept it as a fact of life these days? "Privacy is dead, get used to it", as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame was reputed to have said.

Let me make my position clear. I am not opposed to all forms of surveillance. I recognise that surveillance can be good or bad, depending on who's doing it.

The revelations of US whistleblower Edward Snowden have shaken badly any confidence I might have had that intelligence agencies will always keep within the law when it comes to mass surveillance. The pressures on them from their political masters are just too great, when it comes to monitoring those considered to have the potential to cause serious harm to our way of life.

I am not opposed to targeted surveillance where, for example, a person is suspected of involvement in serious criminal offences, or involvement in terrorism-related offences. That is, provided there is a credible judicial process for the granting and review of any warrant to undertake such surveillance.

Mass surveillance is everywhere these days. How many surveillance devices recorded your movements today? If you need any convincing, just go to your local supermarket.

New surveillance technologies are being invented and refined all the time. If such technologies can keep us safe, surely we should use them, say some. Others argue that there have to be meaningful limitations on ever-more intrusive surveillance.

In a 2009 report, our Law Commission highlighted the negative aspects of surveillance. These included the impact on the exercise of traditional civil liberties (for example, freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly), in particular, the chilling effect of being under surveillance; loss of anonymity; stress and emotional harm; excessive collection of personal information; insecurity and loss of trust; use of information collected for questionable purposes; discrimination, profiling and misidentification; desensitisation.

In the words of leading Australian privacy expert, Dr Roger Clarke, "Psychologically, people need private space; sociologically, people need to be free to behave, and to associate with others, without the continual threat of being observed; economically, people need to be free to innovate; politically, people need to be free to think and argue, and act. Surveillance chills behaviour and speech and threatens democracy."

The UK Information Commissioner's panel of experts found that today's "surveillance processes and practices bespeak a world where we know we're not really trusted. Surveillance fosters suspicion. Surveillance practices have implications for privacy and a host of other important values: justice, dignity, self-determination, social inclusion, security and others".

Social scientists have discovered that many of us tend to change aspects of our behaviour when we think we may be under surveillance.

Former Australian Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton's words struck a chord with me. "The threat of terrorism may decline ... but its monument may be a surveillance society. Individuals want both secure and private lives." A former Privacy and Access Commissioner for the State of Victoria put it more bluntly: "A people surveilled become a people paranoid."

Some people, seemingly untroubled by any form of mass surveillance, appear to believe that we should be prepared to give away all of our privacy, in both public and private places - as long as we are "safe" from those who might cause us harm. That worries me greatly. Even if we were prepared to do so, would we be much safer as a result?

Until, heaven forbid, technology exists that enables those undertaking surveillance to know what any individual may be thinking, while giving the capacity to stop that individual from acting on their thoughts, the possibility of random acts causing loss of life, be they politically motivated or otherwise, will continue.

Wherever we may stand on the political spectrum, would any of us really want to live in such a society? I think not.

The very remote possibility that we may be caught up in a situation involving some form of terrorism-related criminality is one of the prices we pay for living in a "free society". Long may that cherished freedom continue.

Tim McBride is a human rights author and commentator.

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- NZ Herald

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