The GCSB hearing

All the media coverage of yesterday’s committee hearing into the GCSB bill centred on Kim Dotcom but for my money the real discussion came in Thomas Beagle’s presentation.

Thomas runs Tech Liberty and is, on reflection, one of the most principled people I know. His views are based on some very clear, well-thought out beliefs about civil liberties in the age of the all-powerful network and I agree with most of his views and ideas, albeit in a more watered down form. He’s quite right when it comes to copyright issues, the extent to which technology offers governments the ability to monitor and invade our lives and the need to counter that with some strong, clearly defined limits on those powers.

We disagree, for example, on whether there should even be a GCSB or security apparatus in New Zealand to begin with. Thomas’s view is the more principled – mine is less well founded but more pragmatic. Too many politics classes at university I fear, or perhaps not enough.

Thomas’s submission focused on two key issues: the scope of the GCSB’s reach under the new legislation and the concept of “metadata” and what that means in this day and age.

Thomas quite rightly points out that the scope of the GCSB is being extended, not tidied up as the Prime Minister would have you believe. Instead of being banned from spying on New Zealanders at home, the GCSB will be empowered to do so. This is a major leap, a huge change in both the operational parameters and the brief the GCSB works under and, when combined with Vikram Kumar’s point about the inclusion of a new role – spying not just for national security issues but also for “commercial” reasons, potentially opening up the use of the GCSB by such vital New Zealand operations as Fonterra (don’t laugh – search out the stories about the US use of Echelon to spy on Airbus on behalf of Boeing during some tense negotiations) and you’ll see scope creep of the highest order.

But it’s metadata and the definitions, or rather lack thereof, that concern me most. Metadata – information about information – can be as banal as the details you see on your phone bill. That is, it’s the information about who you called, how long you talked and what you paid. It’s not the conversation itself.

So far so what, but in this day and age of mobility, metadata includes your location because everyone of us carries a cellphone and every cellphone knows where it is in the world in order to connect to the network.

Unfortunately the GCSB bill doesn’t define metadata. It doesn’t rule it in or out of scope, it doesn’t even mention the term. We’re none the wiser as to what metadata can or cannot be gathered and neither, I suspect, is the GCSB.

I was also unimpressed with the PM’s assertion that those who don’t like it can either stay off the internet or encrypt their communications. Staying off the internet is a facile point of view and as he well knows the sister bill to this one – the Telecommunications (Interception and Security) Bill – effectively outlaws encryption that cannot be cracked by the GCSB.

New Zealand businesses need to be able to fight it out on the world stage without fear that the GCSB is handing highly important intellectual property over to US or other allied “authorities” without realising what they’re giving away. Given the news out of Europe about the level of US spying, New Zealand will have to tread very carefully on the international stage. On the one hand our security alliance is with the US and its traditional allies. On the other, our trading alliances are increasingly with those who stand on the other side of the fence – China and south east Asia.

It’s vitally important we get this right not only for Thomas’s principled views around civil liberties but also because of my pragmatic views around trade relationships. That’s a tricky position to be in and TUANZ urges the government to think carefully before plowing ahead with a law that puts both liberty and economy at risk.