The recent public meeting at the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall to stop the GCSB Bill was illuminating.
As one of the speakers, I learned a great deal from my colleagues.They cast new light on what it might be like to live in a surveillance society.
As we go about our daily lives, we emit an array of electronic data. If we carry a cellphone, our movements can be tracked and our texts, tweets and calls collected. The use of swipe cards can be traced (as MP Peter Dunne and reporter Andrea Vance have discovered).
If we visit a doctor, hospital, lawyer, accountant or bank, these transactions leave electronic traces. The same applies to our exchanges with government, local government and other agencies, and surveys and polls, for that matter.
All of this data can be gathered, stored, analysed and manipulated. Almost every day, it seems, we learn more about the devices, search engines and data storehouses designed for such purposes.
According to The Guardian, the GCSB in New Zealand is linked with US Government computer systems such as Prism and XKeyscore which routinely download and analyse all phone calls and internet transactions including emails, Skype calls, visits to websites and social media.
In Prism and XKeyscore, private contractors do much of the work. The potential for blackmail, hacking and other nefarious uses of this information is obvious.
At the Mt Albert meeting, Kim Dotcom described this vast electronic network as a "Spy Cloud". All that is needed to trigger a search in the Spy Cloud is some kind of electronic "trip-wire" - an exchange with an individual, or network of individuals or an organisation that has already come under scrutiny for some reason.
The data of anyone connected with such an individual, along with their contacts and their contacts' contacts can be harvested (known as "three hop analysis").
In Nazi Germany, critics were silenced with the argument, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." It has been sobering to hear this repeated in 21st century New Zealand.
In the contemporary world, there are many spy states. According to many commentators, galvanised by a fear of terrorists and al-Qaeda, the United States is heading in this direction. In such states, governments gain extraordinary powers. Democratic rights are stripped away while the risks to security are often outweighed by the harm caused to innocent citizens.
Until recently, I had thought New Zealand governments were largely immune to such temptations. Over the past few months, however, a trail of links between an American corporation (Warner Brothers), the US Government, its intelligence agencies and the GCSB, the Prime Minister's office and Parliamentary Service has been uncovered by New Zealand lawyers and journalists.
In this shabby saga, which began with an illegal raid on Kim Dotcom's mansion, a report on the GCSB has been leaked, and an MP and a journalist have been spied on.
There has also been a massive breach of trust between Parliament and its citizens. Many of us have been watching as politicians and officials breach one democratic convention after another - the freedom of the press, ministerial accountability, human rights, and the independence of the civil service, the police and local government - at the expense of their fellow New Zealanders.
The GCSB has been involved in some of the worst of these debacles. In the process, serious questions have been raised about whether a proper degree of independence exists between this agency and those who are charged with ensuring that it does not exceed its legitimate powers. Quite clearly, on a number of recent occasions these checks and balances have ignominiously failed.
In such a situation, it is indefensible to try to ram through a bill that gives the GCSB almost unlimited powers to spy on Kiwis, under political supervision.
Any legislation regarding the security agencies must have the support of the Law Commission, the Privacy Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission, and most New Zealanders, since their rights are at stake.
The two MPs who hold the balance of power on this matter are implicated in the Kim Dotcom/GCSB saga. In any other governance situation, they would be required to declare a conflict of interest and step aside from decision-making.
The great majority of New Zealanders abhor the idea of living in a surveillance society. In a democracy, it is the duty of Parliament to reflect their wishes.
Dame Anne Salmond is an anthropologist and writer and New Zealander of the Year.
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