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Why the debate between security and privacy in NZ is important yet irrelevant

FEATURE: NZ Security, April 2015

Surveys shed light on our willingness to accept state snooping of our private data

It was the major 2014 pre-election issue that fizzled: state mass surveillance. Kim Dotcom, Nicky Hager and even a cameo by Edward Snowden had whipped up a frenzied political debate that preoccupied New Zealand for a few brief moments. That same debate turned out to fall curiously short of making any dent on the national election result.

Surely government surveillance of our personal communications – whether legislatively justified or not – is a big issue. Surely we, as citizens, have some quantum of interest in whether the state – and who knows who else – is siphoning our personal communications into a pool of countless other texts, emails and lovingly sent emoticons for possible analysis in relation to who knows what. Apparently not.

New Zealanders, it appears, just don’t give a byte about the potential for intrusions – either well intentioned or not – into their personal space. Is it because we just don’t have anything to hide? Is it because we’ve come to view our telecommunications and social media accounts as public space anyway? Or is it because most of us accept that protection from terrorism and enemies of the state are more urgent ends than protection from the state itself?

Surely most of us would find the idea of mass surveillance somewhat irksome, but is there simply an implicit acceptance that it is necessary, or at least better, than the alternative? No one likes the prospect of visiting the dentist for a tooth extraction, but we accept its necessity nevertheless. And is it just us?

Revelations in February that New Zealand was surveilling the communications of our neighbours in the Pacific had all the ingredients for diplomatic stouch, but there was barely a ripple in the pond. Even Grant Bayldon, Executive Director of Amnesty International NZ, commented in a March New Zealand Herald opinion piece that “News of New Zealand’s mass spying on people in the Pacific is just the latest instalment. But there’s been little real political fallout.”

New Zealanders’ attitudes surveyed

A recent poll, commissioned by Amnesty International, questioned 15,000 people from 13 countries across every continent. It sheds some interesting light on the attitudes of both us and the publics, of NZ’s spying partners on the issue of state mass surveillance. The survey, conducted in early February, included 1,000 respondents from New Zealand.

According to the poll, 63% of surveyed New Zealanders are opposed to the government monitoring and storing their internet and mobile communications data. By contrast, only 22% supported mass surveillance practices.

53% of respondents disapproved of the use of electronic surveillance technologies being used by New Zealand against other countries. But 43% were comfortable with surveillance against foreigners in New Zealand – as opposed to 40% against.

Interestingly, the survey found that only 7% of people would be less likely to criticise the government on email, private messaging or social media if they knew the government was listening in. More interestingly, it found that 15% indicated they’d be more likely to criticise the government in their private communications.

7% are less likely to criticise the government but 15% are more likely to? Maybe there’s a few of us out there that perhaps view state surveillance as another avenue for the airing of complaints... at least the government’s listening!

On a serious note though, these statistics do not suggest great fear of the surveillance state nor of the prospect of a retaliatory government turning on dissident voices. On the contrary, they suggest that surveillance may actually inspire an emboldening of behaviour against intrusive government rather than a retreat to quiet acquiescence.

In other words, the results appear to indicate that New Zealanders do not see the spectre of domestic state surveillance as impacting on the democratic fabric of our political system. They do not view a ‘big brother’ scenario as necessarily part of a slippery slope towards totalitarianism or anything resembling that.

Despite our views on mass surveillance, there appears to be a begrudging acceptance of it... perhaps helped along by a popular assumption that more intrusive government snooping doesn’t necessarily reflect a weakening of our democracy and the checks and balances that come with it. Tracy Watkins commented in a February Dominion Post op-ed that it’s all about trust. “We put our faith in our elected governments to not give agencies like the GCSB or Security Intelligence Service free rein and to understand where we, as a nation, would draw the line at activities conducted in our name.”

How well placed is our collective belief in the benevolence of our government and the robustness of our democracy? How well placed is our relatively higher acceptance of surveillance against foreigners? And how do the attitudes of New Zealanders compare in this regard to those of the publics of other countries?

How did we compare internationally?

Across all 13 countries surveyed, there was no majority support for surveillance – only 26% of all respondents agreed that a government should monitor the communications and internet activity of its own citizens. A similar number of respondents overall – 29% - were of the opinion that their government should monitor overseas citizens.

In all surveyed countries, more people were in favour of their government monitoring foreign nationals (45%) than citizens (26%). In some countries those in favour of spying on foreign nationals was more than double that of citizens.

In Canada only 23% believed their government should monitor citizens compared with 48% for foreign nationals, and in the US the differential was 20% compared to 50%.

According to Chris Chambers, writing for The Guardian, “These results suggest the presence of a social ingroup bias: surveillance is more acceptable when applied to “them” but not to “us”. New Zealanders’ ‘ingroup bias’ wasn’t far behind that of Canada and the US, and was significantly higher than that of the likes of the UK, Australia, South Africa, France and the Philippines.

Surveillance doesn’t appear to be stifling criticism of governments. In almost all the surveyed countries, most people (60% on average) said that surveillance would not change their tendency to publicly criticise their government. And, interestingly, for those people who indicated that it would change their behaviour, surveillance was usually associated with more criticism rather than less. This pattern was greatest in Brazil, Spain, New Zealand and South Africa.

Negative feedback does not a political movement make

While the survey suggests that a majority of New Zealanders may prefer no government mass surveillance of their personal internet and mobile communications, this clearly hasn’t translated electorally. For New Zealanders and many of the publics questioned in other countries, the survey tells of a clear underlying trust of one’s own government, coupled with a relative underlying distrust of foreign governments and foreign nationals.

The reasons for this may be many and complex, but the key question remains: should we care about mass surveillance?

Although the security vs privacy battleground is usually seen as a case of pitting two polar opposites against each other, Grant Bayldon argues that it’s not the zero-sum game that we tend to think it is. The security and privacy imperatives can – and should – coexist, providing for settings that balance security measures with assessed threat levels and that provide the checks and controls that characterise a robust democratic political system.

The ongoing debate in New Zealand is important because without it the state is not provided with a gauge of public sentiment on issues that may not ultimately loom large come election time. Democracy is not just about elections, and it is perhaps the debates and sentiments expressed in the three years between them that more truly define us as a democratic country.

Back to Homeland

Surveillance: do most of us just accept that protection from terrorism and enemies of the state are more urgent ends than protection from the state itself?

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