Proposed new spy regime – what you need to know

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A review of New Zealand’s spy agencies, the SIS and GCSB, has recommended that their operations be streamlined to make it easier for them to do their jobs.

New legislation will be required to implement the proposed changes, though it isn’t clear what the details of any new laws will be, and whether they will have the support of opposition parties. But in the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the proposed changes.

Why do we need new laws? Is there any serious threat? Aren’t we already safe?

The world is full of bad people who mean to do you harm. Our spies can’t tell you who those people are, of course, for operational reasons. So you’ll just have to trust them.

But I don’t trust them. Time and time again, intelligence agencies around the world, including in New Zealand, have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of staying within the law.

Now that’s probably unfair. It’s true that the GCSB have in the past conducted surveillance in circumstances that, strictly speaking, were not entirely within the parameters of the then current legislative framework. One might even conclude that their actions were an outrageous and blatant breach of a very clear and unambiguous prohibition on domestic surveillance. But let’s not get hung up on technicalities.

Even if we concede that some of the GCSB’s activity has technically been illegal, that doesn’t make it a bad thing. You’re probably familiar with the “to catch a thief” argument. Who better to catch a terrorist than an organisation with no respect for the law?

Forgive me, but I don’t see it that way. How can we trust our spies if they won’t follow the law? How can we know what they’re up to and who they are working for?

They’re working for the people of New Zealand. They want you to feel safe in your own country.

But I already feel safe.

Well you shouldn’t. You wouldn’t believe some of the communications they have been intercepting. It would keep you awake at night, honestly. Terrible and evil people plotting to do appalling things.

Wait a minute. I don’t feel safe any more. You told me they wanted me to feel safe, but you’re scaring the shit out of me.

But you don’t need to be afraid. Give these people what they want. All they ask is that you give up a few of your precious civil liberties in exchange for safety.

But that’s the thing. It feels as if we are ceding more and more civil liberties so that our spy agencies can do what they want. But what if the real threat to our society isn’t Islamic terror? What if the bigger threat is a vast surveillance network where everything we do is scrutinised, every conversation we have is recorded, and huge amounts of information about our everyday activities are shared with countries that don’t have the same respect for privacy that we have, or at least purport to have? Our intelligence agencies are supposed to be keeping us safe, but who is keeping us safe from them?

Those are some interesting questions, for sure. But if we answered them, the terrorists would win.

So you’re not going to answer any of them?

You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide.

What? That’s no kind of answer! Besides, everyone has something to hide. It’s why we have locked doors, for Christ’s sake. It’s why I don’t publish my credit card number on Facebook. It’s why I wear pants!

And who knows what sort of dirty bomb you could be hiding in those trousers?

Come on! Isn’t privacy an important right? Doesn’t there have to be some balance here? Isn’t there a danger of our becoming a surveillance state? If the government can poke its nose into everything I do, how can I be sure that the information they collect won’t be misused?

Privacy is important, sure, but if our spy agencies can stop even one terror attack, isn’t the utter erosion of your basic human rights a price worth paying? What would you say to someone who lost a child in a terror attack, if it turned out that we could have prevented that death if only we could have spied on people sitting on the toilet or having sex, read everyone’s private emails, and conducted nationwide phone surveillance?

I’m going to quote Benjamin Franklin at this point. He said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Your thoughts?

Our spy agencies don’t comment on ongoing operational matters.

They can’t talk about Benjamin Franklin? Benjamin Franklin has been dead for over two hundred years.

That is your assertion. All we will say is that if you could read even half the things our agencies have on file about Mr. Franklin and his involvement with radical groups, you would have a very different opinion of the man.