18 August 2013

Of fishermen and spies

It is illuminating to watch President Obama switch tack as he deals with political head-winds after the revelations from Ed Snowden. At least he admits that there is a problem.
What we now know is that the capability exists to drag-net all communications. This does not mean that everyone is being monitored; it just means that anyone can be monitored, any time. US law – and, as of this week, NZ law – permit the gathering of whole haystacks of data by the intelligence community so that the needle that may (or may not) be hidden therein can be located.
Once such capabilities exist, they can't be undone; and, if it can be done, it will be done, if not by us and our allies, then by our enemies (whoever they may be). The question now is how legally to frame and constrain such capabilities – even though their operational details are to be kept secret. An agency that has grown out of a military background, focussed on foreign signals intelligence, being used now also for domestic policing, with data-capture capacity never dreamed of in the past, is not an ideal agency when it comes to striking a balance between security and liberty/privacy. This is especially concerning given that the GCSB does not have the operational independence from the Executive that the Police have. And the Bill seems to be silent on what scope of unlawful activities its newly legalised capabilities are intended for. Could the GCSB be used, for instance, to assist the Police in the detection of offences against the Fisheries Act? (As I understand it, a sworn police officer also has the powers of a fisheries officer.)
Our Prime Minister has shown a lack of concern about the politics of this business, reasoning that those most worked up about the GCSB Bill are not those who would vote National anyway, and that those who do vote National profess a lack of concern.
Mr Key argues that what really matters to New Zealanders is the Snapper 1 fishery. In that case, there are probably unsustainable and allegedly illegal fishing activities occurring among both the recreational and commercial fishers, but there is insufficient surveillance of their activities to detect them and to fully estimate total catch-levels. In the case of recreational fishing, there is not even sufficient data on the actual tonnage landed annually. The answer, then, is greater surveillance, ironically. Perhaps when the calls, text-messages and locations of recreational fishermen start to be collected and analysed, then the complacency of those who are presently 'relaxed' about the GCSB might end.


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