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Spying on Ourselves

December 19, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

The 9/11 terrorist attacks on America have been used as an excuse for the introduction of all sorts of unnecessary and draconian laws in the US but I thought that New Zealand was relatively immune. Apparently not, because it appears now that the police have paid people to spy on various fairly innocuous groups here, ostensibly under the auspices of anti-terrorism laws introduced after 9/11.

A group within the New Zealand police called the “Special Investigation Group” was set up in 2004 to focus on terrorism threats to national security, and has been reportedly paying informants to spy on groups such as Greenpeace, animal rights campaigners, climate change campaigners, and Iraq war protesters.

I really don’t think these are the sort of people we would consider to be genuine threats to our national security. I know there are extreme elements in some of these groups who might resort to illegal tactics to make their point, but even then they could barely be described as terrorists.

Some people might suggest that we are better to err on the side of being too cautious rather than increase the chance that genuine terrorists go undetected, but is this really true? In my experience the sort of people who might tend to see nothing wrong with keeping a close eye on Greenpeace (for example) are also the ones who are complaining about too much government intervention in their own lives (although they often fail to come up with many specific practical examples). So they want the government to keep out of their lives but its OK for them to spy on others? This seems slightly hypocritical to me.

I would rather slightly increase the risk of terrorist attacks and live in a more free society than tighten controls on people to reduce the risk. The chance of a serious attack on a small country like New Zealand is surely quite small anyway. Would it not be appropriate to manage that small risk in as unobtrusive a way as possible? Well I guess you could say that secret spying, which probably went on for several years, is unobtrusive (at least until it was discovered) but that’s hardly the point!

The police have (rightly or wrongly) been the object of considerable criticism recently and this latest incident is hardly likely to improve the public’s opinion of them. In a free society (whatever that means) its important that the police are trusted, but being spied on just because you support a position which might be construed as being slightly controversial is no way to build trust!

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