David Clark | Issue 4

David Clark | Issue 4

Who Watches the Watchers?

I n my line of work, I’ve run into a few “spooks”. Good people, as far as I can tell. One view privately expressed to me is that oversight is something they welcome. Far from wishing for unencumbered powers, those I’ve met wish for suitable oversight of their activities. Intelligence gatherers know the importance of public confidence in their work. Perhaps more poignantly though, they have often had reason to observe the effects of absolute power and its ability to corrupt government regimes. The results are not pretty.

Nicky Hagar’s recent revelations about wholesale data-hoovering have sparked fresh concern about the government’s role in spying abroad. This spying on allies includes collecting all emails, text messages and other digital data from New Zealanders resident in the Pacific.

Some will say all government-sanctioned spying is bad. Some will say it is good. But the reason most New Zealanders are interested in the issue is twofold. First, we haven’t known much about it until recently; second, the issue isn’t completely cut and dried.

To what extent are governments legitimate in trading away individual liberties (and privacy) in the interests of wider safety concerns? Where should the line be drawn, and who should make that call?

We share a lot more personal information on the Internet than people did a generation ago, much of it nominally private, but all of it a part of our digital “shadow”. Difficult family conversations used to happen in person, not via email. Our bill payments and purchases weren’t available for trawling online; bank withdrawals were hand-written in a savings-book.

To my mind, the issue we should debate is oversight. Regular citizens (me included) don’t always have the best information to decide when and why civil liberties should be traded away for reasons of our greater security. Greater supervision, by a panel of trusted New Zealanders, would give us all greater confidence that our interests were being properly served. Structural reform and stronger governance is required.

@philiplyth put it like this on Twitter: “Righto. GCSB’s full take will include many of the 22,333 votes via internet from overseas in Sept 14. How do you like that?”

Truth is: we feel uncomfortable with this thought, and we lack trusted third-party oversight to give us confidence that data is being used appropriately. That needs to change.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2015.
Posted 2:32pm Sunday 15th March 2015 by David Clark.