John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Security trumps privacy online

Cyber-spying does not seem as sinister as the methods of yesteryear

For a few days, I thought I must be missing something in the big spy story of the week.

Then the Herald ran a column by Robert Cornwell, of the Independent, who wrote: "I worry about myself. I find myself quite unappalled by the news that in the fight against terrorism, the United States Government has been secretly collecting unimaginable quantities of phone and internet data, much of it on its own citizens."

So it wasn't just me. I have been as unappalled as I was when the Kitteridge report told us the Government Communications Security Bureau here has provided this sort of "metadata" on about 80 New Zealand residents besides Kim Dotcom.

Yet, I worry that I should be worried. The reports from the US about this vast surveillance capability often hark back to the Pentagon Papers and the efforts of the Nixon administration to dig for dirt on Daniel Ellsberg. I remember I was angry about that.

So what has changed in 40 years? Is it that I'm older and more trusting of governments, or has the world changed?

The world, I think. Back when agents of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were breaking into private rooms and planting bugs in people's telephones, they could not have imagined that a generation hence their successors would stay at their desks and gather infinitely more intelligence at the click of a button.

Privacy commissioners say the public should be wary about this but most people are not. They post much more personal information about themselves on internet sites than they would ever have publicised by other means. They babble by email, text and Twitter much more carelessly than they used to write on paper, yet they know the digital word is as permanent as print and just as capable of embarrassing them.

We shop online leaving a trail of personal consumption that will be studied by strangers, mined and traded for profit and expose us to the sort of junk mail many have prohibited from their box at the gate.

And we carry mobile phones that constantly transmit our location to a global network. The next big horror story will be that state security services have access not just to records of who we have called but of everywhere we have been. I bet they're using that data too.

We happily carry these tracking devices for them because the cost to our privacy is a negligible price to pay for participation in this web of wonder and convenience.

Our cheerful participation is the reason, I think, that cyber-spying does not seem nearly as sinister as the methods of yesteryear. Physical break-ins, phone taps, stake-outs, skulking, stealing, photocopying, all seem much more invasive than their online equivalents because we have a greater need and expectation of physical security.

Privacy in communications is a much more selective principle, as the past fortnight has shown. The likes of Russel Norman, who are loudest in their outrage at data mining by the GCSB and allied security agencies, were also the quickest to condemn Peter Dunne last week for withholding some of his email from the inquiry into the Kitteridge leak.

Those who fear the state's power of surveillance have a legitimate concern that it might discourage disclosures to opposition political parties or the press. Governments have long been guilty of using the police to investigate incidents that are of no more than political interest.

The Kitteridge case was typical. The leak was an infuriating distraction for the Prime Minister during his diplomatic efforts in Japan and for that Dunne deserved to go, but it was no more than that. The leaked version contained no classified information, nothing that threatened national security.

Left to their proper role, intelligence agencies ought to monitor mobile and internet connections. I would be surprised if they did not. Considering the nature of our only known active enemy, I would be appalled if they did not.

The terrorism of 40 years ago was different from today's in one important respect. Those holding hostages at Entebbe or the Munich Olympics didn't want to die. That means they needed an organisation, facilities for negotiating, backchannels, lines of escape, a country of refuge. They had something for spies to watch.

Today's suicide bombers have no such organisation. With the inspiration of 9/11 they need only some knowledge of explosives and detonation, readily available on the net. They can live quietly and unobtrusively in a modern city until their chosen hour.

All things considered, it is remarkable there have not been more explosions like those in the London underground in 2005 and at the Boston marathon this year. If access to phone and internet logs has helped prevent more of them, the spies are welcome to mine.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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