Gehan Gunasekara: Let's lead the spooks a merry dance

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Surveillance laws can be countered by effective civil disobedience, says Gehan Gunasekara.

Protests have proven citizens do care who has access to their information. Photo / APN
Protests have proven citizens do care who has access to their information. Photo / APN

For the Government it is the perfect privacy storm: the Snowden disclosures about massive NSA internet and phone surveillance continue to pour in, a journalist's phone records and swipe card logs have been inappropriately accessed, and earlier revelations through the Dotcom affair showed illegal spying by the GCSB of New Zealand residents - at the very time the Government is attempting to legitimise the illegal spying by pushing through new surveillance legislation against the wishes of the vast majority of citizens.

The issue has brought together citizens all around the world including those in the United States who have, it appears, finally turned against the surveillance state set up since September 11, 2001. Legislation outlawing the NSA spying was only narrowly defeated in Congress by the Obama Administration which has been under some pressure due to the Snowden revelations.

Companies such as Facebook and Google are losing market share as consumers flock to alternative websites promising greater security against state intrusion (whether or not that is credible) and greater respect for privacy. Corporate concern is on this occasion lined up with consumers and against government, a powerful combination. Governments worldwide are on the back foot.

The tens of thousands here and overseas marching against assaults on privacy give the lie to the sentiment that "privacy is dead". Obviously, most people do care deeply about who has access to their personal information.

Information they choose to put on social networks such as photos and "likes" are one thing but "metadata" such as phone and internet records of every call made or website visited are another entirely - especially when subjected to mining and analysis by unknown and unverified algorithms that could come back to affect them, and their contacts, much later. Despite this, our Government seems hell-bent on carrying through the unpopular legislation.

People often ask me what they should do, given these developments. Should they retreat to the pre-internet age, go off-line and resort to snail mail (NZ Post would be delighted) or carrier pigeon? This might be counter-productive, although it would put further pressure on those internet companies prompting them to lobby governments. There is, however, another strategy, one that uses the very technology itself to send a message. This is civil disobedience, and it is quite legal.

Let me explain what I have in mind. Start sending random emails to people and encourage them to do the same to everyone they know. Don't use obvious words like "explosive" or "jihad" or names such as "Akhmed". Be more clever than that. Refer to vague and indeterminate "projects", courses and trips overseas and meetings with John and Sally or whoever.

Make up hypothetical "friends" and refer to totally fictitious trips you have made or are planning. Ask random strangers you meet if they will join your protest and allow you to send them emails. Visit radical websites, even Islamist or anarchist ones - nothing illegal in this. From time to time talk about "doing something" to stop Western policies. Set up multiple online identities.

Pretty soon everyone in New Zealand will have to be under surveillance. This is the nature of civil disobedience. For example, Gandhi's famous "salt march" encouraged everyone to make salt and highlighted the state's ultimate failure to stop it by arresting the entire population. The Prime Minister's scare tactics of pointing to al-Qaeda operatives in our midst is just that. Such people are few and easily identifiable in a small population such as ours. Target them but do not put all of us under surveillance because of them.

It is time to resist the assault on our privacy by fighting fire with fire.

Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor in commercial law at the University of Auckland specialising in information privacy law.

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