Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The last resort of scoundrels

Having failed to win the argument for greater GCSB powers on the merits, John Key is now resorting to the unsavoury tactic of questioning people's patriotism. Those who oppose giving the GCSB carte blanche to spy on everything are accused of not being concerned about public safety, specifically from crime and terrorism. But who are the GCSB actually after? Kim Dotcom and Nigerian scammers.

But even if you accept Key's point rather than treating it as laughable, this is fundamentally a question of proportionality. The police already have powers to tap phones, intercept emails, and conduct surveillance under warrant. These powers are judicially supervised and proportional to the threat. For those conspiracy theorists who believe we need domestic spies to counter nebulous "threats", the SIS also has such powers, though with far less oversight. Whether you think it is about crime or terrorism, there is simply no justification for the massive, PRISM-style surveillance contemplated and permitted by this bill. We would not let the police wire every house in the country with video cameras to detect burglaries or domestic violence, no matter how much it kept us "safe". Neither should we let the GCSB listen to every phone call, read every email, and track everyone's movements via their cellphones. And neither should we let them circumvent the current prohibition on such by getting their foreign "partners" to do it for them.

If we believe a spy agency that spies on foreigners is necessary, then the GCSB already has appropriate powers to perform that role. But there is simply no justification for greater spying on New Zealanders. And anyone who hides behind "public safety" to try and justify it is simply an authoritarian engaging in the last resort of scoundrels.