Over the past 15 years since 11 September 2001, there has been a substantial increase in the surveillance capacity of the New Zealand Government. Some of the changes were necessary as the attacks in the United States highlighted some critical weaknesses in our own laws. Further, more recent attacks especially in Indonesia and the destabilization of the South Pacific, most notably in the Solomon Islands as well as concerns about the growth of Chinese military and surveillance capabilities . But how much of the expansion is actually justified?
Contrary to what many people on the left-wing of the New Zealand political spectrum say, New Zealand does need a surveillance capacity installed. We are lucky that our Government is quite transparent in terms of policy making and agencies being held accountable despite a decline in Transparency International’s rankings. It is true that the ECHELON network of spy bases which include Waihopai and Himatangi in New Zealand is an American operation, whose value to New Zealand is questionable. However as a member of the Five Eyes which includes Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, the Government Communications Security Bureau does receive vital information about militant and security trends that have the potential to pop up in New Zealand.
It is not to say that the surveillance is altogether justified, as it has the potential to encroach on New Zealanders human rights and also our human rights obligations to the rest of the world. Because of the mistrust around American and Chinese foreign policy objectives and the influence of corporate interests that do not support New Zealand’s ideals as a responsible peace-loving nation in the South Pacific, the G.C.S.B. is walking a tight rope between wielding too much power and breaking our laws, and not having sufficient capacity to carry out statutory requirements.
I personally would rather the assets at Waihopai and Himatangi are handed over to New Zealand control, in which a Parliamentary Select Committee is responsible for ensuring their responsibilities are met. The assets should be refocussed away from monitoring activity in the Middle East, which is largely a response to circumstances New Zealand has had little to do with, and should avoid. Instead of the Middle East focus, monitoring the Pacific Island nations, what China is doing and under the supervision of the Parliamentary Select Committee, what is happening in New Zealand.
But what about checking the expansion of surveillance powers – and indeed, what are those powers?
In 2013 a major Bill of Parliament was made an Act, that allowed, among other things, the G.C.S.B. to protect Government agencies from cyber attack. Fair enough. It also requires the G.C.S.B. to get warrants from the Prime Minister’s office and the Commissioner of Security Warrants before it can spy on New Zealanders communications. Again, no problem. However some of the changes introduced in 2014 were seen at the time as being outright attacks on peoples liberty, with such provisions as those for allowing for surveillance of private properties lasting up to 48 hours without a warrant. Other changes included allowing the Minister of Immigration greater power to freeze or cancel passports.
It does have to be said, and this is one of the reasons that I believe makes New Zealand a safe place to live, is that New Zealanders have a greater degree of transparency among their spy agencies and those responsible for their supervision than any of the other Five Eyes members. Still, the legislation is only as good as those who implement it and there is the potential for abuse. So, whilst the legal framework of our surveillance is subject to stronger scrutiny than in other nations, New Zealanders should continue to tread with caution around it.