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Surveillance powers get abused - just look at the US and UK

Surveillance powers get abused - just look at the US and the UK

by Branko Marcetic
November 10, 2014

Whenever the government gets ready to pass new laws expanding the powers of our security services – in this case, the proposal to give the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) powers to survey individuals for up to 48 hours without a warrant – there are two distinct arguments that tend to get flung about. According to the government and its supporters, increased powers are essential to get our security agencies, beleaguered by waves of frightening terrorist threats, up to scratch. From the point of view of its critics, the laws are the real threat, expanding the power of the state to curtail our civil liberties and opening up the potential for massive abuse.

It seems impossible to decide between the two positions. After all, only the government has the evidence for the actual scale of the terrorist threat New Zealand faces. Meanwhile, whether or not these increased powers really will be abused can’t be determined until they’re put in place and evidence of wrongdoing eventually emerges.

That’s the way it seems.

In reality, however, developments both here and abroad have provided ample evidence for the argument that when governments are given broad powers to spy on their citizens, these powers are almost inevitably turned against law-abiding political critics – not against the terrorists these laws were put in place to stop.

Just a few days ago, it was revealed that UK intelligence agencies had been illegally violating the centuries-old principle of the confidentiality of lawyer-to-client correspondences by vacuuming up electronic communications between the two. In at least one case, this information was passed on to lawyers who were defending these same agencies in court, in order to give them an advantage.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Intercept reported in September that the NSA had spent years secretly monitoring the emails of lawyers, academics, activists and even a Republican politician. What did all of these individuals have in common? They were all Muslim and, bar one, all worked and agitated on behalf of Muslim civil rights, criticising the government in the process.

This is nothing to say of the historical abuses carried out by these agencies. In the US, during the 1970s, the Senate Church Committee revealed the decades-long and widespread abuse of surveillance powers on political opponents, and civil rights and anti-war activists. In the UK, the government compiled thousands of files on protesters and union leaders and even spent decades spying on two of Britain’s leading historians due to their political leanings. The British police also infiltrated a variety of political groups over a period of decades, and in one instance, and undercover officer even fathered a child with one of his targets. Security threats are in the eye of the beholder, and in the process of stopping them, overzealous public servants can go to some dark places

Let’s not forget, too, that these increased powers would come mere months after some serious doubt has been thrown on the political neutrality of the SIS. One of the controversies of the Dirty Politics saga was the fact that the SIS declassified and sent off in record time documents to right-wing blogger Cameron Slater that would be politically embarrassing to former Labour leader Phil Goff. At the same time, requests for the same exact documents by newspapers were denied. On top of all this, Hager’s book alleged that Slater had been tipped off about the existence of these documents in the first place by John Key’s staff.

The Inspector General’s inquiry into the matter is still under way, so the public won’t know exactly what happened until the end of the year. But this makes the Key’s government insistence on suddenly pushing through these new laws under urgency even more questionable. After all, shouldn’t we know if the SIS has been used as a political tool before we give them broad, new powers?

Gerry Brownlee’s recent assurances that the SIS could be trusted with these powers do not help matters much. Questioned by Guyon Espiner as to why the SIS couldn’t simply go on “fishing expeditions” thanks to this warrantless surveillance, Brownlee explained that it was in the interests of the SIS to gather evidence lawfully in order for it to be admissible in court. That, of course, assumes that the SIS would actually be using this power to gather evidence for a court case each time they used it, and not for any other ends – something that, given earlier precedents, we have serious reasons to doubt.

John Key has said that under the new laws, if a warrant is not retroactively granted the material collected will simply be destroyed. However, even if the information isn’t stored, someone would likely have already listened or read, digested and analysed what has been collected, rendering the point somewhat moot. It’s also unlikely to be much solace to someone who has had their privacy wrongfully violated, which can’t be undone.

Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of the rapidly approaching end of the year, the steady drumbeat of fear-mongering over the last couple of months, and the unwillingness of MPs from either of the two major parties to look soft on terror, this new power will in all likelihood be extended to the SIS. But if we find out some time in the future that it has been abused, by a Labour or National leader, we shouldn’t be surprised.

ENDS

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