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.

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