Chris Barton on technology

Chris Barton is a Herald Online columnist

Chris Barton: The end of privacy

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Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the U.S. National Security Agency. Photo / AP
Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the U.S. National Security Agency. Photo / AP

"If the truth would come out and you would all know what they are already doing today on a massive scale against New Zealand citizens, you would be devastated."

So says Kim Dotcom at "Megabreakfast II", run by Auckland branch of New Zealand's Institute of IT Professionals, last week. The truth, he claims, is out there. Now, thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the former contract employee for America's National Security Agency (NSA), we're a little closer to knowing just how much our government is engaged in mass surveillance of our entire population. It's also dawning on us that the proposed Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) Amendment Bill makes the routine tapping of every internet communication that enters or leaves New Zealand legal.

Dotcom, who plays a cameo role in the revelations, has been banging on about the issue for some time.

Most thought he was a conspiracy nut. "I gave interviews six months go where I said everyone is being spied on," he tells his audience. "Everyone was, 'Yeah right. That is going to happen'. And now you all know the truth and you have got to wake the f*** up."

Worryingly, the general reaction seems to be a sleepy "whatever". The news that the NSA, in conjunction with the Five Eyes network, of which New Zealand is a part, has been operating a worldwide dragnet operation on email and other private communications through a metadata collection program called Prism, hasn't resulted in much outrage at all. If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

One commentator even said: "Intelligence agencies ought to monitor mobile and internet connections. I would be surprised if they did not."

Elsewhere, following the Obama administration's soothing that these were "modest encroachments on privacy", public opinion has apparently "quickly migrated from shock to 'meh'." It was, after all, only metadata. Not to worry that Prism also collects data from nine companies, including such giants as Google, Microsoft and Apple. It's true that we've known about some of this for some time.

Echelon and the spy base at Waihopai have been in the news since the 90s, but it's now clear that the spy network has evolved into a data gathering machine of colossal proportions. Mass surveillance without anyone really noticing.

Such apathy by too many journalists, the so called watchdogs of political power now kowtowing to what government spin doctors say, apparently in the interests of national security, is even more troubling. Worse still, some have suggested the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, should be charged with a crime. For what - doing journalism?

If anyone has any doubts about what Prism means, it's worth listening to Greenwald explain about just one of the stories he's written to date. He talks about Secret Source Operations, a unit of the NSA, boasting in an internal document about reaching a particular milestone in December 2012 - its one trillionth piece of email internet metadata.

"What that means is that every single day they are collecting hundreds of millions of our email records and the email records of people around the world to find out who is emailing to whom, what our IP address is when we open the emails and read them, which means what our physical location is," says Greenwald who goes on to explain just what the NSA is able to piece together from the metadata gathered: "What our network is, who our associations are, what our life patterns are, what it is that we do on the internet, what our interests are, what animates us - a whole variety of information that they are sucking up and vacuuming, not about individuals who they think are guilty of terrorism, but about human beings indiscriminately."

Dotcom claims a specific New Zealand example. "From the Court of Appeal we have seen the documents that confirm that the GCSB has inputted into Prism - the system that the US is currently getting heat for - my email address, my mobile number, my IP address and they received back from the US-based spy cloud all the information that the Five Eyes had gathered on me."

There are two problems with this situation. One is that our laws specifically state that the GCSB is not supposed to spy on New Zealand citizens. The second is that Dotcom may be a lot of things, but it really is a stretch beyond reason to call someone charged with secondary or contributory copyright infringement a terrorist or a threat to national security. In his submission on the proposed GCSB Bill, Dotcom says what he and his colleagues have endured over the last 18 months represents "an extreme present day example of what can happen when Government and intelligence agencies misuse or misunderstand their powers".

As the Kitteridge Report shows, the GCSB has been freely gathering metadata involving New Zealanders without a warrant for some considerable time because it assumed metadata was "not a 'communication' for the purposes of the prohibition expressed in section 14 of the GCSB Act." Kitteridge points out that assumption was wrong and metadata would indeed "be likely to constitute a 'communication'."

The government response to all this is to pass new legislation under urgency to make such illegal activity - spying on all New Zealanders - legal. The Law Society is among many groups which are not impressed. "The Bill empowers the GCSB to spy on New Zealand citizens and residents, and to provide intelligence product to other government agencies in respect of those persons, in a way not previously contemplated and that is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA) and with privacy interests recognised by New Zealand law."

Tech Liberty also raises disquiet: "We are particularly concerned with the Bill's silence on the GCSB's existing practice of collecting and analysing metadata."

Another also not impressed is Dotcom's co-accused Matias Ortman, who told the Meagabreakfast audience: "As a German I'm very aware of German history. In the 1930s there were similar tendencies by the German government."

Perhaps what's most insidious about this extraordinary loss of freedom and encroachment on privacy is the public acceptance of the need for a ubiquitous watchtower's gaze. Our part in accepting such a state of permanent visibility under Prism's all-seeing, metadata eye is that we accept its control. We are compliant.

In such a world, where mass surveillance is the norm, we the inmates don't know when we are being watched, but we do know we can be singled out for inspection at any time. Under the promise of protection we surrender privacy.

Once given up, it's a freedom we may never get back.

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