15 September 2014

Snowden steals the show

Undoubtedly the most interesting of the presenters at Kim Dotcom's "Moment of Truth" was Edward Snowden. He offers an important insight into the systems that our government is a party to, and has been a party to for many years. That includes under Labour.
His most important political point is that the public need to be informed about the extent and nature of surveillance that security agencies are now capable of – not necesarily so that we should shut them down, but rather so that the public can consent to the limits to their uses.
I would add that, no matter how much one regrets what our intelligence community is doing, we mustn't forget that our adversaries on the international stage are doing much the same. So, to drop the guard and to abandon such surveillance systems altogether would be downright stupid. The critical question is the extent to which we might consent to the uses of information collected through mass-interception of data. When can such databases be searched, by whom, and for what purposes? For how long should unneeded data be stored?
Mr Key has released documents that show that one proposed system of cyber-defence was not taken up by Cabinet. This fails to prove that mass-interception is not undertaken at all by the GCSB. All it proves is that one option for detecting and disabling malware was not approved. Key is desperately following, and not leading, this critical debate.
Mr Snowden's revelations show us that pretty much the whole internet is open for inspection by Five-Eyes partners. That's now well established. But, let's not forget that Russia and China and probably others will at least be working on acquiring the same capabilities, if they don't already have them. (The USA and UK have the advantage of major internet traffic flows crossing their borders).
We can't unknow what we know.
The issue is now one of defining the extents and limits of the uses of these technical capabilities that we, the people, would consent to, in a free and democratic society. For a start, I guess most people would consent to systems that protect major governmental agencies' databases from cyber-attack by foreign intelligence agencies or criminals seeking, say, to establish false identities or to raid information on our economic interests. Most would consent to the detection of money-laundering or extremist activities, even if committed by NZ citizens.
Snowden's most important insight is that we, the people, should decide what we permit such systems to be employed for, at least in general terms. It's not really different, in principle, from public consent limiting the (often covert) policing of crime and the uses of firearms by police officers. The criterion should be that the level of force or surveillance that we consent to is that which is in the interests of our common safety and well-being.


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