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We all live in the post-Snowden world

by Josef Kafka

The latest revelations of large-scale surveillance by one nation over another – or others, in this case – cites the by now familiar source as whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. Recent documents released by the former CIA contractor, show that New Zealand has been carrying out mass surveillance on phone calls, emails, and social media posts by other Pacific nations.  This data was then shared with other intelligence agencies in the so-called ‘five eyes’ group, Australia, USA, Canada, and the UK. The story was first reported in the New Zealand Herald (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11414525) and US website The Intercept (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/). The latter provides a platform for publication of documents that have been released by US citizen Snowden.

Hardly a week goes by without further evidence of one intelligence agency carrying out mass surveillance on a targeted section of the population, no matter where they are – or how remote. The Pacific islands being monitored by the NZ intelligence agency, include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Samoa,  Nauru, and Kiribati. The latter two have populations of under 10,000 and 102,000 respectively, and you might have thought that living on one of these you were out of sight and mind of the snoopers, but of course you’d be wrong. The fact is that wherever you are in this inter-connected world, someone, somewhere may well be monitoring your online activity.  Or they can if they want to, unless you decide to stay offline and throw away your phone.

When challenged to defend this activity, politicians, and members of the intelligence community, such as GCHQ or the NSA, invariably say that innocent people have nothing to fear and that the surveillance is there to track the bad guys, including terrorists, criminals, or some other threat to our security. In any case, mass surveillance is nothing new, is it? We’ve been living under the steady gaze of CCTV cameras everywhere for many years, and Automatic Number Plate recognition ( ANPR) cameras have been recording tens of millions of our daily journeys for just as long.  

In 2000, only some nine agencies had the power to access records of our communications; a decade on and the number authorised to do so under the same legislation is around 700. Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, in 2001, and the 7/7 bombings in London, four years later, the security services rapidly expanded their activities, and any voices of dissent or concerns about this posing a threat to our individual freedoms, were pretty muted – or easily brushed aside.

Since 2013, when Edward Snowden released the huge cache of documents that shows just how widespread – and, in some instances, illegal – surveillance by the various agencies has been, everything has changed. It’s maybe going too far to say there’s been a paradigm shift in the public’s acceptance of surveillance as a necessary and acceptable price we have to pay for our liberties, but people are increasingly uneasy about the scale of snooping that’s being carried out in our name.

Before 2013, who had ever heard of Prism, the program that NSA used to collect online communications, with the assistance of internet companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple?  Who had heard of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in the UK –  a judicial authority, set up in 2000 to hear complaints about surveillance carried out by intelligence services and other public bodies? When the Snowden revelations first came out, US president Barack Obama said citizens couldn’t expect to have 100% privacy and demand 100% security. At the time, no reasonable voice disagreed. Since then, however, more of us are questioning just what the privacy-security ratio should be.


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