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Dunne's Weekly: Government Snooping Threatens Individual Privacy And Freedom

It has not been a good week for civil liberties in New Zealand.

First was the Police’s confirmation that their Tactical Response model launched earlier this year is built around a multi-million dollar programme known as SearchX. This programme is based on data-driven policing. That has been highly controversial in the United States and Britain, where it has been accused of intensifying police racial biases, compounded by a lack of transparency.

While SearchX has many undoubted advantages in helping the Police track and monitor suspected criminals, gangs and potential terrorists, the Police only disclosed its existence this week in response to an Official Information Act request from Radio New Zealand. SearchX has apparently been in operation for a nearly a year now.

The official papers show that the Police, presumably mindful of the reactions in other countries, were worried there was a “high risk” to the project. The papers note that “If adverse media attention occurs then the project may be delayed or closed." Hence their silence until SearchX was fully operational.

What is most alarming and controversial about this project, which many will see as a vital tool in crime fighting and enhancing domestic security is the lack of scrutiny that has accompanied its development. This is especially so given the controversies of recent years where there has been much public criticism of Police profiling tactics as racially biased. While those claims have been routinely denied, it is strange to say the least that the Police have been so secretive about rolling out SearchX when it has been subject to the same criticisms overseas.

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Of further concern has been the complete silence of Police Minister Ginny Andersen. As part of the self-proclaimed “most transparent government ever”, she has either been kept in the dark by the Police because they regard SearchX as an operational matter outside the Minister’s purview or has been happy to go along with their plans. But given the controversy SearchX type systems have attracted in other countries the public is entitled to some assurances about what safeguards are in place to prevent SearchX overreach, and what the overall accountability of the Police is over SearchX’s operations. To date, there have been no such public assurances.

But the Police’s move is not an isolated occurrence. Radio New Zealand has also revealed this week the existence of MI, a 115-person strong intelligence unit established within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, (MBIE) to provide intelligence on all aspects of the Ministry’s responsibilities. While MI works in conjunction with the established intelligence agencies, the SIS and the GCSB, and is headed by a former intelligence agency official, it is not subject to any of the legislation governing the way the intelligence agencies operate. Nor does it come within the scope of the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence to review its operations. Like SearchX, it is literally a law unto itself.

Over the last six years the role of MBIE has expanded greatly to have fingers in virtually every aspect of the machinery of government. During the Covid19 pandemic it became the government’s “go to” department on nearly everything and took over many functions previously exercised in other agencies. Most notable was its supplanting of the government’s specialist medicines buying agency, PHARMAC, as the lead agency in the procurement and supply of Covid19 vaccines, and its operation of the now infamous MIQ scheme. It hardly covered itself in glory in either of these instances.

The notion that this flawed Ministry should now be developing its own intelligence service with no external accountability is of concern and smacks of extreme bureaucratic overreach. While there may be a case for developing more specialist intelligence in areas like immigration fraud, people smuggling or money laundering, that should be done under the purview of the existing intelligence agencies, appropriately resourced, and subject to all their legislative controls and accountabilities. It is unacceptable that a meddling Ministry like MBIE, with a very indifferent record of performance, should be able to develop its own spy network, accountable to no-one.

But once more this “most transparent government ever” has been utterly silent on what is happening. Either it does not know and has been kept in the dark by MBIE – possible but unlikely – or it has been tacitly complicit in what has been happening. The bottom line is that its silence is unacceptable – particularly during an election campaign when voters are deciding which political parties can be trusted to protect their rights and govern fairly in their interests.

There is already mounting concern in New Zealand about the growing influence of AI and the impact that will have on personal privacy and the lives and freedoms of individual citizens. People everywhere are looking to governments to protect them against such unwarranted intrusions on their lifestyles. Both SearchX and MI will be drawing heavily on AI and the information it amasses, but the government has shown no interest in protecting the rights of citizens against what is happening.

While Labour is guilty of allowing, either intentionally or by omission, the development of these appalling intrusions on personal rights and freedoms, they are by no means the only ones to blame. So far, to their collective shame, neither National, ACT, the Greens, New Zealand First, or even Te Pati Māori have spoken out against what is happening.

In the heat of the election campaign they cannot all have forgotten their most basic responsibility is to protect the rights and freedoms of the citizens they seek to represent.

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