Will public apathy to spying last?
Last year’s election result convinced many observers that the public feels profoundly apathetic about whether, how and when the security services invade their privacy.
Before the election, the country was awash with revelations that the Government Communications Security Bureau ( GCSB) was actively engaged in an American system of global surveillance that involves the collection and vetting of the private emails, texts and phone calls of ordinary citizens.
Even so, those revelations ended up having little or no impact on the election outcome.
Last week, everyone got the chance to revisit how they felt about this issue.
Wellington investigative journalist Nicky Hager – working in unison with American whistleblower Edward Snowden – released evidence that this country routinely scoops up the communications of our Pacific neighbours and allies, and sends them off to the National Security Agency in the United States.
In the process, the private messages of New Zealanders holidaying or working in the Pacific would be caught.
In response to Hager’s revelations, Prime Minister John Key asserted that the GCSB was doing nothing unlawful and that the Government was not engaged in mass surveillance of its citizens.
Certainly, the changes made to legislation in 2014 have made it legal for the GCSB to participate in domestic spying activities – even without a warrant.
The Government’s combative response to the Hager evidence pointedly ignored whether the GCSB’s actions in the Pacific before the law changes were legal.
Before those 2014 law changes, it was illegal for the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders, either at home or abroad.
On the evidence, the GCSB was certainly doing just that.
As Greens co- leader Russel Norman argued, the GCSB’s current actions in the Pacific can only be legal if the Government really has – after all – legitimised a system of mass surveillance of New Zealanders.
In June, there will be a major review of our spy agencies, one that will probably result in a further expansion of their powers.
How will the public react? Arguably, the public’s alleged apathy may have been misjudged by people disappointed that their own outrage is not more widely shared.
In fact, the wider public may have simply reached a different conclusion about the revelations.
First, many New Zealanders appear to feel that they, personally, have nothing to hide.
Second, the GCSB intrusions are supposedly for the purpose of detecting terrorists or criminals – and if the public’s privacy gets temporarily invaded for this greater good, then many voters seem untroubled by the trade-off.
Key and the Government have done all they can to tailor their reassurances along these lines.
Repeatedly, the Government has asserted that the GCSB’s more dubious actions are lawful, and that it is only because the public’s security is paramount that the reasons for the agency’s activities cannot be discussed openly.
So far, Key has traded successfully on the public’s tacit acceptance of such assurances.
It helps the Government’s cause that the public also seem to dislike being lectured about surveillance, or told how they should be reacting to it.
It is a thin ice situation, however.
One major terrorism incident would tilt the balance of a divided public, either way.