Metadata is no joke, and neither are these Bills.

02 Jul 2013

Two very important Bills are on the table: the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill (the GCSB Bill) and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Surveillance) Bill (the TICS Bill). Together, these Bills would permit a handful of people, without independent oversight, to further empower GCSB to invade your privacy, online (and off, for that matter) in order to protect New Zealand’s national security, international relations, general well-being and economic well-being.

Pretty broad.

I've had a chat with a number of people outside of my line of work about these Bills and I am surprised by the average reaction: yes, I've heard about it, but I don't really care about it. I understand that the majority of New Zealanders don't think about The Internet for their job (like me, everyday). But, this is a moment where New Zealanders have to think about The Internet for their society.

Have you ever seen a democratic society tacitly accept government surveillance of its private communications?

I chalk this up to unawareness. I reckon that most New Zealanders just haven't set time aside to think about what the Internet says about them when they use it, or who is listening. Most of us communicate our lives over it. We'll take Joe, for example, whose smartphone advertises his name, the names of his contacts, the phone numbers he's called, received or missed, his text messages, the websites he's pulled up, the make and model of his device - all of this, to servers somewhere. Networks triangulate his location, wherefrom he Skypes or FaceTimes someone, or shares his Bejewelled scores on Facebook (whatever Joe does).

Imagine that Joe uses his phone all the time, like most of us do. His metadata grows throughout the day, becoming taller, wider, trailing him around, like a shadow. If Joe is interesting enough, the GCSB could assemble a metadata palate, from which it could paint - illustrate - his entire day. This is why, when people dismiss metadata as something semantically less protectable under privacy norms than actual communications, they’re either uninformed, disingenuous or just confused.

The metadata exercise is like watching a person, where they go, who they talk to, what they buy, but not listening to what they say or hear. You can infer a lot from observation alone. The Kitteridge Report shows that the GCSB collected metadata on New Zealanders. Metadata can be just as revealing as the communication that it surrounds.

You have to ask yourself if you would feel uncomfortable with a stranger listening in on your life. And if that stranger were a government? Finally, if you feel this is outside the realm of possibility, have you read the news? Or the Bills?

My best friend was born in Bulgaria. His family risked their lives fleeing the communist regime, first to Africa, then to Western Europe, before seeking political asylum in the States. I was talking to him on Skype the other day and he told me about his mother’s reaction to Prism. This wonderfully astute and strong woman broke into laughter and said “How naive are you to think that the Government isn’t spying on you? Or that the Government would not do what it promises that it would not do?”

But communist states were a completely different story than the US. The NSA would only look into the worst situations. It would not look beyond what it is supposed to.

I can hear her reply, generous, considering. “Right, Uncle Sam will only follow the proper rules and procedures – light touch, no more data gathered than necessary. He’d be a gentleman. Like Sherlock Holmes.”

New Zealanders owe it to themselves to take a moment and think about these things. It may help to consider it as a spectrum: on one side you have National Security, on the other you have Privacy. The point of the law is not only to strike a balance between the two, but to ensure that wherever that balance is struck, that point cannot be moved, that it is guaranteed to be immobile by the rule of law. When those in power are able to push that point towards the National Security end without notice and without permission, you’re moving away from democracy and towards something else.

The Kitteridge report states that the GCSB needs “robust internal systems and effective external oversight so that the public can be confident in the lawfulness of those operations.” The GCSB Bill provides the former, but not the latter. The Bills combine to produce a result diametrically opposed to an open and uncaptureable Internet and they challenge the principle that human rights should apply online.

The question is: What are New Zealanders going to do about it?