Last night, the second of two spy bills was passed through our Parliament. The passing of these laws leaves these agencies less accountable than they should be, and does nothing to restore New Zealander’s faith in their role.
When the GCSB Bill was first introduced to Parliament, I was surprised by the depth of public feeling on the powers and practices of New Zealand spy agencies. When I was out knocking on doors, I received plenty of unsolicited views on the dangers of spying and the way it impinges on individual freedoms.
More than anything, I was surprised by the way concern was spread across society, and felt particularly strongly by middle-aged and retired folk. In short, everyday people were concerned that the Government, in the name of security, was giving itself seemingly unlimited license to impinge on privacy and personal freedoms.
After plenty of conversations and a little reflection, I realised why this feeling is so strong and widespread. First, much private business that was once conducted in person, is now conducted online (think personal email conversations with spouses and sensitive discussions with ill relatives). Also business transactions that were once isolated events are now searchable data-points indicating hobbies and preferences. Second, the lack of effective oversight and the unwillingness to review, even by a hand-picked panel, seem to hint at something unseemly that doesn’t wish to be examined lest it be found wanting. Third, all of this happened against a background where surveys show a widespread personal distrust of John Key – despite continuing to enjoy relative popularity (his drop in popularity is a topic for another time). More on this background in the text below.
Our spy agencies need robust oversight. They have had a terrible run under Key. As the Minister responsible for GCSB, he has overseen scandal upon scandal. The illegal spying on Kim DotCom was the tip of an iceberg, with the details of dozens of similar cases still suppressed.
Suspicion of John Key’s involvement with the spy agencies provides part of the reason for piqued public interest. For starters, his role in appointing the chief spy was dragged out of him over an extended period of time. At first he was vague and couldn’t recall, but eventually it became clear that he had not only appointed a good friend’s brother to the position, but in fact he had been responsible for encouraging him to apply. No immediate problem with any declared conflicts of interest in an appointment process, but why try to hide it?
The leaking of the Kitteridge Report, and the keeping of journalists phone records, all preceded the final passing of bills designed to *make legal* spying on NZ citizens and residents that was previously illegal. The Law Society didn’t let up on the criticisms registered in its original submission on the bill.
The two pieces of law (GCSB and TICS Bills) fail to provide appropriate checks and balances for the increased spying powers. We cannot be sure the agencies are acting in the New Zealand public interest. A full review of the agencies should have been scheduled, and an oversight body ought to have been enshrined in law. The unnatural haste – politically motivated – further added to a bad process. And bad processes seldom make good law.