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Spying and Lying

There’s a quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, which I think is relevant to modern society. It is “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Franklin never actually said those words but they are a paraphrase of something he did say, so give me a little bit of poetic license here for the sake of my greater point.

Of course I am quoting this in the context of the seemingly endless series of reports of spying activity which have appeared recently. Even little, isolated New Zealand is a part of it because the issue is global and everyone is affected.

Many revelations of what has been happening are a result of the documents stolen (or “liberated” depending on your perspective) by Edward Snowden. It seems likely that what he did was technically illegal but if it is then it is surely an example of where breaking the law can be the moral imperative of a good person.

New Zealand is a member of the “Five Eyes” spy network which has the US, UK, Canada, and Australia as its other members. There is no doubt that New Zealand is the most junior member in this group so you might think it’s a good deal for us because we get access to most of the material collected by those bigger countries, but is it really?

There might be a case to justify this activity if it really was just used for fighting serious crime and terrorism, but it’s becoming very clear that those functions are far from all it is used for. It seems that economic and political surveillance might be a more important function of the system and I don’t think many people would want us to be involved with that.

In the past New Zealand has taken a courageous stand on moral principles against the US. When we banned US naval ships from our ports because the Americans wouldn’t say whether they used nuclear technologies we were admired by many and the consequences from the US military were not that significant.

But our prime minister, John Key, seems more interested in toadying up to the Americans and getting photo ops with the US president than doing what is morally right.

And it seems likely that the official story on what New Zealand’s spy agencies, especially the GCSB, are doing isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of their real activities. For example it now seems likely, contrary to previous assurances, that the GCSB does have the ability to search bulk metadata using XKeyscore, a program which we never even knew existed until Snowden’s document leaks.

The prime minister and the director of the GCSB sound like they cannot be believed. Any awkward questions are classed as relating to “operational issues”. That makes it just too easy to avoid questions they don’t want to answer. Citing operational issues as an excuse not to answer questions is just a variation on the old “commercial sensitivity” defence and I’ve commented elsewhere on what a joke that is.

In fact listening to the different sides debating this issue I have to say that Greens leader, Russel Norman, sounds the most reasonable by far. John Key alternates between dubious assurances that everything is OK and for the greater good, and refusals to comment; Ian Fletcher (director of the GCSB) just sounds less convincing all the time; but Norman sounds quite moderate and fair.

We know the GCSB illegally spied on New Zealand citizens. We know the Five Eyes network has been used to spy on our political allies. We know the key people involved with our surveillance program have been very “economical with the truth” either by refusing to comment, or being deliberately misleading, and maybe even lying. We know these spy networks are used to benefit big American corporations. What more do we need?

It’s time to take another moral stand like we did with the anti-nuclear ships issue and refuse to cooperate with the US in its unscrupulous activities. We might not gain any real practical benefit from this but we might again be seen as a country which does what’s right, and that seems to be a very rare thing today.

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