Jack Georgieff is a research associate with the International Security program at the Lowy Institute.
Last weekend saw coordinated protests throughout New Zealand against the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill, now passing through parliament. This has proven to be a tricky issue for John Key's conservative government for nearly a year now. The circumstances brewing in the land of the long white cloud are symptomatic of wider simmering distrust of the state and its ability to surveil its citizens not only in New Zealand, but in other Western countries.
This issue had its catalyst in New Zealand in January 2012 when internet mogul Kim Dotcom was arrested for extradition to the US. Months later his extradition warrant was thrown out after it was discovered that information assisting in his arrest had been obtained by the GCSB in New Zealand, directly contradicting 2003 legislation forbidding the agency from spying on New Zealand citizens or residents (Dotcom has been granted residency only months before the raid). Further investigations instigated by Prime Minister Key (who is also the minister in charge of the GCSB) found that there had been at least 88 instances of illegal spying since the 2003 legislation was first introduced.
Added to the recent Snowden leaks in The Guardian, Key has a real political storm brewing that he undoubtedly does not want. With GCSB's known links to the Five-Eyes network, opponents of the bill fear their information will be passed on to foreign intelligence services.
These revelations prompt the question: how does the state respond to an ever changing technological world, where information about who we are is ever more readily available and the boundaries of individual privacy are constantly remoulded?
Liberal democracies face a situation in which legislative power and intent cannot keep pace with technological change. This does not make extension of domestic spying powers in New Zealand right or ethical. But it does require a reformulation of what we understand to be privacy in 2013 compared to its definition in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This is often pointed to as standard for liberal democratic practice on such issues, vague as the definition is. Surely times have changed and a more articulate, comprehensive and modern view of what constitutes privacy of the individual is needed when considering issues of intelligence and national security?
A serious debate is needed on a legal framework which can keep pace with such communications and strikes the right balance between privacy of the individual and security of the collective. New Zealand has always had an undercurrent of left-wing, anti-American sentiment. These recent protests (small though they were) should nonetheless serve as a warning sign to political leaders in Australia too that a respectable public debate around privacy, security and intelligence must be encouraged in order to bring about some consensus over what constitutes 'private' and what the trade-off is with security for the citizenry more widely.
There is a need for the work intelligence services do, as Rory Medcalf said in his piece on Michael Hayden's recent interview with the Australian Financial Review. Medcalf's analysis that Hayden's public remarks are 'an important data point in understanding the risks and uncertainties of Australia's changing security environment' can be applied to New Zealand too. The risk is that this data point will be lost in the current debate.
Photo by Flickr user Viewminder.