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Nothing to Hide

The issue of what rights our governments should have to spy on us seems to have arisen recently in many parts of the world. Major concerns have been brought forward regarding the NSA’s activities in the US, and the GCSB’s here in New Zealand, just to give two examples.

The usual excuse given for increasing surveillance is to make it easier to control serious crime and terrorist organisations. We should be concerned about terrorism and organised crime, but that concern should be proportional to the real threat. And we should also ask whether the increased abilities to spy on citizens will really be used for the reasons stated or whether there is another agenda which they are not telling us about.

Here in New Zealand our PM seems determined to push through new laws even though just about everybody disagrees with them, and he has only managed to get the majority required through the usual dirty back-room deals. Why would he be so determined to make these law changes when there’s clearly no good reason for them, and they are so unpopular?

I think behind the scenes the pressure is coming from the US government, and in turn they are being pressured by big business. It’s far more likely that these new laws will be used to spy in people like Kim Dotcom rather than real terrorists and criminals. So these laws seem to be designed to increase corporate power and decrease our personal freedom.

In internet discussion forums there is a rule called “Godwin’s Law” which states that the first person to use an analogy with Naziism or to make any mention of Hitler to support their point automatically loses the debate. In justifying political actions there should be a similar law which says that any mention of terrorism should automatically mean the person making that claim loses.

The fact is that terrorism isn’t a big threat and having governments spy on their own citizens is too high a price to pay for the meagre protection it would offer. After all, bypassing the attentions of these spy agencies isn’t too difficult if you know what you are doing and any competent terrorist should be able to avoid detection. So it will only be the naive and innocent people who will be the victims of this gross invasion of privacy.

So what about the argument that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear? Well that argument should perhaps be another one which means automatic disqualification from the debate because it’s so obviously fallacious. I would ask anyone who uses that argument to post all of their discussions, messages, and personal documents on-line for us all to see. After all, if they have nothing to hide, why not?

Everyone has something to hide. Sometimes what they want to hide is illegal, sometimes it is dangerous, sometimes it is politically contentious, sometimes it is just a bit embarrassing, but unless it involves clear and immediate harm to another person then it should stay private.

Clearly there is no distinct boundary between controversial and genuinely dangerous activities, so a case could maybe be made that it’s better to be safe and err on the side of more surveillance. But I don’t think so. I would genuinely rather have the occasional terrorist attack which bypassed the attention of the spy agencies (after all, that often happens anyway) than live in a repressive police state.

Just about everyone agrees that excessive government surveillance is a bad thing and we need to look at the issue carefully before proceeding. The law society agrees, most political parties agree, the previous head of our spy agency agrees, the majority of the public agree, and there have been significant protests against the new law. But our PM is going to push it through anyway and we should be very suspicious of that!

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