Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: I spy with a huge global eye

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I used to know someone who spent a lot of time on computers, fancied himself as a bit of a tech-head and was concerned about security. When he needed a password he used a case-sensitive one made up of 26 random letters and numerals, which he changed every month.

I secretly used to wonder whether he was a bit of a dill. But now I know for sure - he was.

As whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations about global data gathering by governments and your friendly neighbourhood search engines and social media sites prove, my acquaintance was wasting his time.

When it comes to privacy and data protection on the internet, there is none. We owe Snowden a huge debt for confirming what many always suspected. And for not using our credit card details, which he apparently could easily access, to order room service at the Mira Hotel. That stuff can cost an arm and a leg in those swanky Hong Kong joints.

There are still people who fail to appreciate the enormity of what has been brought to light; people who say, if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about, or who concurred with Google's Eric Schmidt when he said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Maybe. Or maybe, Mr Schmidt, as the wise nuns who taught me used to say, you should mind your own business.

And if you're not, then we at least have the right to know that you're not.

The revelations change so much. They make it clear, for instance, that previous mechanisms to defend our rights - such as the obligation to obtain a search warrant - have been rendered obsolete.

There are so many ways in which harvested personal data can be misused by those in power: to attack political opponents in campaigns; to undermine activists fighting for causes to which the government is opposed; to settle personal scores.

Spying on your own people is what totalitarian states do. Former Stasi spies, with their cameras concealed in picnic hampers and newspapers with peepholes in them, must be eating their hearts out to think how easy their job would have been today.

Internet users might like to ponder the extent to which their beloved Google and Facebook - defenders of freedom and individual rights - co-operated with this subterfuge.

Snowden is accused of treachery, and this is indeed a story of betrayal. There's no denying he betrayed his employers, and no doubt violated the terms of numerous documents he signed. But although he may have betrayed those who run the country, he has not betrayed the country itself. Rather he has performed a heroic act on behalf of the people who make up that country, and the rest of the world, by revealing how many ways their governments have betrayed them.

Its aim is so important that it's impossible to watch the Glenn inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence falling apart without hoping for a speedy solution that will ensure its work continues.

But the fracas has highlighted one fault that seems to have been there from the start. Hitherto, the inquiry has concentrated on recording details of people's experience of abuse.

Surely we already know enough about that from decades of information - statistical and anecdotal - about the problem.

Family violence is hardly unique to New Zealand and much research into solutions has been done here and around the world. Surely at least some of Sir Owen's money would be better spent evaluating those, on finding answers rather than on restating the question.

- Herald on Sunday

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