Chris Barton on technology

Chris Barton is a Herald Online columnist

Chris Barton: Am I bovvered?

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Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden. Photo / AP
Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden. Photo / AP

By now, thanks to Edward Snowden and Kim Dotcom, we all know we're all being watched, all the time. To which the collective response seems to be: "Am I bovvered?"

Do we worry that the dragnet surveillance is so pervasive that world leaders can be targeted at will?

"Look at my face. Is it bovvered?"

No matter that communication once thought to be confidential is now fair game for security agencies: "Arks me if I'm bovvered!"

The endemic professed lack of bovveredness is curious. Some say what we're seeing is nothing new - ever since the revelations about the Echelon spy network in the 90s we've known Big Brother has been watching and the world hasn't stopped. If you need reminding, take a look at Nicky Hager's speech to the European parliament in April 2001.



Then there's the argument that ubiquitous spying is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of a post-9/11 world - an authoritarian state gathering knowledge by any means because we are all potential suspects. And that the only way to keep us safe from insane terrorists prepared to commit murder-suicide for their cause is to monitor all internet activity. This was one of the arguments advanced by Prime Minister John Key during the public hearings on the GCSB Bill. He asked one submitter whether he would want to know if his neighbour was downloading bomb-making instructions from the internet.

But as Henry Porter pointed out in the Observer last month, the public indifference is weird. "During the cold war, we valued freedom and privacy because we compared our lives to the tyrannical conditions in the Communist bloc. Whatever the faults of western societies, we knew we were better than those societies and we knew that we were right," says Porter.

"Today, apparently, we are at ease with a system of near total intrusion that would have horrified every adult Briton 25 years ago. Back then, western spies acknowledged the importance of freedom by honouring the survivors of those networks; now, they spy on their own people."

The irony of the current situation was highlighted earlier this year when both the Green Party and Labour called for Chinese telco Huawei to be banned from the government's $1.5 billion ultra fast broadband rollout because of fears the company could be spying on us for China. Yet when it's revealed it's actually America doing the spying and that New Zealand is complicit in the process, where's the outrage?

As a journalist I'm boverred big time about how this mass surveillance affects journalism.

In particular I'm het up by the thought that the day-to-day confidential - "off the record" or "background only" - conversations I have with people when working on stories are no longer confidential at all. The problems with this situation are clearly set out in a paper from Columbia Journalism School and the MIT Centre for Civic Media submitted to the Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies convened by President Obama.

"Simply put," says the paper, "a free press cannot function if journalists are not able to make guarantees of confidence to their sources. Private communications and disclosures are routine, not exceptional. Indeed the ability to speak candidly with unofficial sources is foundational to the concept of an independent press."

Today journalists are faced with the fact that America's NSA and, as a member of Five Eyes, New Zealand's GCSB, collect information on all journalist source communications in advance. The pre-emptive collection includes metadata of call records going back years, records of internet traffic and emails, plus records of social network activities.

All standard practice, with journalistic communications swept up in the process. In other words, you may think you have had confidential communications with a journalist, but all those communications are in fact already recorded and available to the NSA and its Five Eyes partners whenever they choose - without a warrant or judicial oversight - to look.

As the paper points out, this is already having a "blanket chilling effect'" on sources willing to speak to journalists. What's more, there are no unilateral technical fixes for this panoptic gaze. Yes, journalists can use encryption technologies, but it is the sources who must encrypt - which requires they are tech savvy and well equipped. Even then such communications are already a red flag for the NSA's XKeyscore, which allows analysts to specify searches for encrypted communications. Then there's the issue that, despite such encrypted safeguards, the NSA may have already backdoored the software and hardware we use in our daily lives. That's exactly the sort of behaviour many shrill voices were accusing Huawei of, and what our government wants to make legal with its TICS Bill.

Where does that leave us? "Despite all the advances in communications technology, it seems reporters will be forced to meet in parking garages as in days of old, " says the Columbia and MIT paper.

Bleak as all this sounds, on the flipside there are signs of growing battalions of the bovvered. Angel Merkel was certainly not pleased at the betrayal of trust. Then there's StopWatching.us, a coalition of advocacy organisations and companies from across the political spectrum.

The movement's video harnesses the voices of celebrities, activists, legal experts, and other prominent figures in speaking out against mass surveillance by the NSA.
If you're still not boverred, consider this. Confidential journalist-source communications aren't the only type of communications caught in the surveillance dragnet. All sorts of professional-client communications are there too. Discussions with your doctor and - as Dotcom claims - with your lawyer are no longer sacred. In terms of the right to justice, and privacy, breaching such privileged communications is as bad as it could possibly get.

To accept the idea of being under constant observation is to accept imprisonment - ironically by the Land of the Free. Look at my face. It's bovvered.

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