Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Step up, Mr Dunne, become a hero

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Whistleblower or not, Peter Dunne remains an important part in all this. Photo / Natalie Slade
Whistleblower or not, Peter Dunne remains an important part in all this. Photo / Natalie Slade

Anything we can do, they can do bigger.

New Zealand's scandal around the mysterious leak of confidential spy papers was made to look all rather feeble by the Americans over the weekend, as the Guardian revealed slides from a secret presentation that illustrated the massive scale of surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency, and boasted of direct access to the servers of the biggest internet players - Google, Facebook, Yahoo and more.

While the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, our own (presumed) leaker, Peter Dunne, went into exile in Johnsonville.

But for all that, the news about America's Prism and related programmes, and its extensive, indiscriminate scraping of citizens' phone records, directly informs our understanding of New Zealand's surveillance operations - and the way they're being changed in two new bills before Parliament that reconfigure the remit of the beleaguered Government Communications Security Bureau and the rules that enable snooping on New Zealand communications information.

These are not legislative tweaks. According to civil liberties advocate Thomas Beagle, the New Zealand changes could even equip our agencies with powers that outstrip those in America, giving the GCSB "practically unlimited capacity to intercept New Zealand communications".

With legislators in the US objecting that when they voted in favour of the Patriot Act they did not intend to sanction the style and scale of spying that has this week been revealed, it is no time for New Zealand to rush through new laws that could enable a similar mission creep.

With sales of George Orwell's great warning 1984 - published 64 years ago this week - soaring in the days since the first Prism headlines, only those with both empty brain and empty life could continue to peddle straight-faced the "nothing to fear, nothing to hide" mantra. To quote one of our own age's great thinkers, Stephen Colbert: "If you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide from the giant surveillance apparatus the Government's been hiding."

Nor is there anything innocuous about the collection of metadata, the record of individuals' activity on the phone and online, minus the content of messages. The NSA is drift-netting this information indiscriminately and without a warrant, and the New Zealand's GCSB and Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security bills make it much easier to do so here.

It isn't just as an instructive example that US events should alarm us. Under the Echelon ("Five Eyes") agreement, New Zealand's spy agencies routinely share information with the NSA. It is inconceivable that such sharing does not include Prism. John Key has not denied that it does. Indeed, the carefully crafted prime ministerial response to any question on New Zealand agencies, the NSA and Prism has been repeated so often this week it's become an earworm. What-I-can-tell-you-is-we-don't-ask-foreign-intelligence-agencies-to-act-in-any-way-that-circumvents-the-law. That's all you're getting. Everything else, apparently, is an "operational matter".

Yesterday's decision to extend submissions on the GCSB bill by a week to next Friday is a step in the right direction, but fails to meet the request by internet NZ and the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ for at least a fortnight's grace, in light of the NSA revelations. When Rebecca Kitteridge in her now famous report called for "a public discussion about the powers and functions of GCSB", it's a fair bet she wasn't envisaging a truncated submissions process.

But even that seems insufficient. With every disclosure, the need for a broad-ranging, non-partisan inquiry of New Zealand's spy agencies and operations becomes plainer.

Changes in the way humans communicate and the techniques for snooping on those communications have left the law seriously out of synch. The right and sensible approach is to start from the ground up, and ask some rudimentary questions. Beginning with the biggie: how much of privacy and liberty are we willing to compromise in the cause of security? Are the safeguards and oversight sufficiently robust? This stuff is central to any durable social contract between the state and its citizens, at the heart of public trust in government.

Along the way, a host of other important questions will crop up, not least: are we happy with the privatisation of surveillance tasks "digital Blackwater", in the words of one former NSA director - as is now commonplace in the US and may be under way in New Zealand in the example of Palantir?

Conducted as openly as possible, a happy byproduct of a wide-ranging inquiry would be a big boost to New Zealand's global reputation for transparency and good government.

Whistleblower or not, Peter Dunne remains an important player in all this. As a servant of common sense, he could use his pivotal vote to forestall the passage of these new laws in the absence of a proper public conversation. In so doing, he'd achieve not just an honourable redemption, he'd be a kind of hero.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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