Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

I’ve spent the past few days talking to various journalists about the GCSB, Big Brother and spying on citizens.

To be honest, I’m a tad uncomfortable with the whole thing. Spies, spooks and state surveillance are a bit “tin foil hat” for my liking. I’ve had several emails and phone calls to the effect that I should watch out for black helicopters and that the only thing stopping the drone strike is my cellphone dropping out (seriously, what is that about? Central Auckland, no less).

In a theoretical world, the spies would spy on high priority folk like diplomats and bomb makers and other spies. They’d have secret alliances and counter-alliances and no doubt secret handshakes as well. We commoners would be below the radar and we’d be left alone to get on in peace.

In a theoretical world, we wouldn’t be bothered by any of this kind of nonsense and the only time we’d care is when the spies leave their briefcases (complete with meat pies, copies of Playboy and a file marked “TOP SECRET”) in a taxi in Wellington somewhere. Then we’d all have a laugh and go back to work.

Sadly we don’t live in such a world. Instead, we face a security service that seems keen on the idea of storing all our online communications in perpetuity on the off chance that some years from now they might want to have a poke around and pull something out that could be juicy enough to justify their endeavours. It could be a politician who is making life difficult for them, it could be a department head they’d rather see the back of, it could be a journalist who has a source and won’t say who it is.

Just as bad, if not worse, is the model that this surveillance will take. Instead of user pays, the expectation is that the telcos will have to pay for it. Store every email, TXT message and the “metadata” about every phone call? No problem – make the telcos do it. They won’t want to keep that kind of information, of course. TXT messages alone take up terabytes of space and it’s only growing. Apparently the world’s data doubles every two years – currently (according to the internet so it must be true) we have around 1.8 zettabytes of data. I have no idea how many zeros that is but the handy graphic says it’s roughly 200 billion HD movies each running for two hours.

Storing all the transient stuff (typically the “metadata” that the spooks like because they can access it without a warrant in the US) is non-trivial and is a cost the telcos wouldn’t carry other than at the behest of the government. We will end up carrying that cost, of course, because telcos pass on costs to customers.

And really, do you want a spy agency bogged down with petabytes of cat videos, Facebook postings and tweets about breakfast? Wading through that lot is also non-trivial and frankly just asking for trouble.

I also wonder just what heinous crime has been committed against New Zealand’s sovereignty that requires such a drastic step as spying on every New Zealander’s online lives. Did I miss the terrorist strike? Is Tasmania poised to invade us? Did a secretive German industrialist set up shop in New Zealand with a plan for world domination? Other than the ones we know about, obviously.

I can think of no rationale for a system that allows intelligence agencies (through a legal sleight of hand) to gather and retain information about my day to day life.

This then is the reason I’m opposed to increasing our own intelligence agencies’ abilities in this area. It isn’t based on practical matters such as cost or signal-to-noise ratio. It’s based on the basic premise that we are innocent until proven guilty and that government in all its various forms should keep its nose out of my business, regardless of how banal or tedious my life actually is.

The new GCSB bill and Telecommunications Interception bill are before parliament at the moment. Submissions on the Interception bill are due by the 13th of June and given the news breaking in the US and UK this week we’ve asked for an extension to that time line so we can better understand just what these two bills mean for New Zealanders. It’s important we get this right as there are a lot of moving parts so we need the extra time to really come to grips with just what is being proposed. Is it going to be a police state or will we retain our right to privacy. That’s what’s at stake here.