Wednesday, 10 April 2013

It's not the spy agencies that need changing, it's our mindset

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key indicated this week that a law change could allow the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to begin spying on New Zealanders. While some critics have derided Mr Key’s remarks as a political move, a number of recurring reactions to his remarks stand out. Most reactions appear generally, or entirely, negative.

The GCSB is an intelligence agency dedicated to collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT), or any form of communication using the electromagnetic spectrum.

Two major themes worrying people are the potential for an increased loss of privacy and civil liberties and the merging two of New Zealand’s intelligence agencies. However, these concerns reflect less about what the government is doing, and more about how underdeveloped the state of our collective societal discussions on privacy and the growing convergence of the digital world really are.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key
The first problem is in conflating increased surveillance with lowered civil liberties. It is very difficult to make that call. It must be understood that the trade-off between privacy and security is always oscillating. Intelligence agencies have a dual role of both protector and monitor, and in the 21st century these words take on whole new meanings.

Because of the way democratic societies function, there is an operational ceiling through which intelligence agencies, especially the GCSB as a SIGINT agency, cannot pass. These agencies rely on us as a society to tell them where to stop their monitoring and protection, and where to start. They are inherently malleable to public opinion and administrative legislation.

They might operate in the shadows, but that does not mean intelligence agencies are beyond the law. Because of their potential power, there are very tight and constricting laws governing intelligence agencies. And they rely on the society they protect to either limit or extend those powers as geopolitical or societal dynamics evolve.

We like to think that spying in the digital realm is acceptable when directed against overseas targets or when intercepting threats. And because of this we desire our intelligence agencies to have strong tools and sufficient resources to spy on other countries for the good of New Zealand. After all, the love of one’s own citizens drives the very basis of geopolitics.

The digital world is viewed in the frame of a battleground when nation states or non-state actors attempt to take down New Zealand websites, spy on us, or steal our commercial secrets. We would applaud the GCSB’s protection if it keeps us from nasty attacks, and we applaud the power and tools they will wield when doing so. After all, threats to New Zealand’s digital infrastructure should be halted by the GCSB to the best of their ability. What other use could they offer?

But after all this bluster and banner-waving, most people, when the get home, will switch on their computers or mobile devices and check their emails. Suddenly the digital battlefield morphs into a bastion of private communication. In this mind-set, the natural reaction is in limiting government interference in this realm as much as possible because it infringes on our privacy.

Our ideas for the state to protect us come into conflict with these outdated feelings of violated privacy. So there’s a balance here. And as a society there is a pressing need to decide where to place the role of agencies like the GCSB in our daily and commercial lives.

They have the tools to increase surveillance and protection of NZ digital traffic. They just need to know from the public how far they can go.

As a country, we need to inform the government about how much protection we want and how much privacy we would like. Ultimately, in peace-time, this is a difficult decision. But it really is a trade-off and it really is up to us.

This is why Mr Key’s plan to increase GCSB surveillance powers is so controversial. As a society, we haven’t figured out where that balance is yet, and Mr Key has tried to start that conversation or at least start a process to bring our digital surveillance laws into the 21st century.

And in this particular conversation, few developed countries have figured out what this balance actually looks like. The more the digital world integrates with human cultures, the more the old ways of thinking about privacy seem go out the window.

Radomes at a GCSB uplink/downlink site
Essentially one has to assume one’s internet session is compromised the moment one logs on to the internet. This fact is uncomfortable, but true, and our digital privacy would be better served if this was remembered more often. Already, a phenomenal amount of personal information is shared on networking sites which can then be accessed by anyone armed with a keyboard, completely leaving aside the powerful capabilities of the GCSB.

Most people buy mobile phone applications and download them without a second thought. But many of these programs hold invisible computer programs to steal your information. None of us want our personal data being swiped by overseas agencies, but it seems we don’t want our own agencies to do anything to help us either.

Increasing the GCSB surveillance powers on New Zealanders should be coloured in the language of protecting our fellow citizens and businesses, not the language of violated civil liberties which have not been updated to deal with the threats of the early 21stcentury.

And are the SIS and GCSB really merging? Even in a small way, as some have suggested? This is unlikely. It is also a reflection of the incorrect language used to discuss modern surveillance and a lack of a working knowledge of intelligence agencies.

Both agencies will increasingly work together more seamlessly. But there is compartmentalisation of intelligence for a reason. It encourages healthy competition and limits the chances for a major secrecy compromise. Quite apart from a negative development, providing the two agencies more tools to work together is far from a next inevitable step towards an outright intelligence state.
New Zealand certainly needs more protection from the digital world, and those malicious people who use the internet for nefarious purposes. Nation states are increasingly leveraging cyberspace to conduct intelligence gathering operations and the GCSB have the tools to limit these endeavours effectively.

The debate should avoid focusing upon the loss of civil liberties and scaring the horses. It should be focused on finding a good balance between greater protection for our vulnerable economic situation and respecting our fellow citizen’s right to a certain level of privacy.

But to get there, the discussion needs to begin around what exactly privacy means for us in the digital world. The old world and all those ideas about privacy have vanished. It is time to upgrade our vocabulary about privacy and security so we can discuss any increase of intelligence powers with something like informed opinion. 

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