Electronic McCarthyism

The government’s committee looking after the GCSB bill has reported back and made very few changes in light of the overwhelming opposition to the law change.

Currently opposed to the bill are the Privacy Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission, InternetNZ, the Law Society, dozens of individual submitters, the Labour party, the Green party, possibly NZ First and of course TUANZ.

In favour of the bill is the government and, presumably, its security allies the US, Australia, the UK and Canada.

Increasingly, New Zealand trades with China, yet it is China that is specifically listed as a potential threat from what we can read of the advice to government over this bill and its sister, the Telecommunications (Interception and Security) Bill which is still proceeding unhindered through the political process, albeit “under urgency”.

We have a number of issues with the two bills, not least of which is the cost it will impose on the industry and which will, inevitably, be passed on to customers.

Under the bills, not only will the telcos be required to store information they normally wouldn’t bother with, but they’ll also be required to consult with the GCSB over changes to the network up to and including which vendors they wish to use.

Assume for a moment that Chinese company Huawei is making huge inroads into network deployments around the world and that US companies are upset by this. Assume that Huawei is providing a better product at a cheaper price and is currently engaged by all our major telcos in one form or another. Assume that the GCSB still thinks China is the enemy and that Huawei is a puppet of the Chinese political system.

What will that mean for our future network deployments?

Will Telecom, Vodafone, 2Degrees, Orcon and Slingshot and all the rest be forced to use non-Chinese technology?  Will they be required to only use “friendly” technology providers, even if the cost is 20% more and the deployment that much slower?

Will the GCSB balk at a request from a telco to move to technology that passes email and TXTs through the network rather than decrypting and storing them for future retrieval?

Will the GCSB ban Apple or Google or any other provider from selling certain “uncrackable” products in New Zealand or ban New Zealand companies from developing similar products for sale overseas?

In decades to come, will the GCSB be able to trawl through a political leader’s entire online history looking for signs of being a teenager in order to embarrass or block that person from office?

If all that seems unlikely to you then you’ll have no problem with the bills as they stand. But even then there’s a problem.

The US Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) specifically excludes US-based companies from providing the kind of support the GCSB and TICS bills demand. Under this law it is illegal for US-based companies to provide foreign intelligence services with access to such customer data.

So even if these bills are introduced, Google and Apple, Microsoft and all the rest will be unable to comply without facing legal action in the US, presumably from the US government itself.

We’ve not been shown any pressing need to change our laws, and most New Zealanders it seems are unhappy about the level of intrusion into their lives these bills represent.

Just as difficult is the position it puts New Zealand in with regard to both our trading partner, China, and our security partner, the United States.

We don’t need to rush into a decision. There is no “clear and present danger” that requires New Zealand to enact these laws without first considering the obvious ramifications both at home and abroad. We need to get this kind of thing right, because the consequences are grave indeed.