Monday, March 16, 2015

On caring about surveillance

I have little patience for the argument that people don’t care about mass surveillance because they live in a state of trusting apathy. It strikes me as a moralistic stance that fails to take into account how complex the problem is, the layers of secrecy and obfuscation that surround it and – most importantly – how removed from our everyday experience and capacity for political intervention the forces that wield this power are.

In New Zealand, we know that the country has been a member of Five Eyes through successive governments, left and right, always doing what was asked of us by far more powerful allies. Thus the act of exercising one’s voting franchise against the current government at the last election wouldn’t have radically shifted the problem. Besides, voting is a blunt instrument, as each party represents a wider range of positions than a stance on surveillance alone. The question then becomes not just if you care but if you care enough to make the issue the principal consideration behind your voting choice. (The same applies to dirty politics: maybe it’s not that people didn’t care: it’s that not enough people cared enough, or weren’t presented with an alternative that invested their vote with the possibility of change.)

From the point of view of political action, campaigning about such issues almost always entails a convergence of strategy and tactics. It is through the form that the struggle takes – think the Springbok Tour protests – that the demand for people to make a stand is articulated and the means of making a stand is provided. Conversely, absent an organised political movement, how can we even tell if people care?

We’re nowhere near organised enough yet. And because we’re not, the field is left to the actors who have turned not caring into their banner. Like the guffawing and pretend-snoring Mike Hosking and the rest of the happy crew at Newstalk ZB, as documented this week by Media Watch. Or the New Zealand Listener, in an editorial charging Nicky Hager with trying either to influence a by-election in Northland or to profit from it, and arguing that we spy on our Pacific neighbours for their own good. Or Martin Van Beynen, who actually starts his opinion piece in Saturday’s The Press with the words ‘I know I should care’, and concludes a ramble on why the latest revelations don’t perturb him with the following thought:
I hardly ever go to the theatre or the orchestra but I think it's healthy we have them. In the same way the Hagers of this world serve a valuable end.
Thus investigative journalism on matters that are fundamental to the functioning of our democracy is reduced to the status of a cultural pastime by someone who doesn’t care much for culture anyway. Merry Christmas.

Occasionally, however, a shaft of light shines through a crack you didn’t know existed. Thus it happened that the otherwise exuberantly authoritarian David Farrar wrote a brief post on Kiwiblog about Customs applying for the right to force people they don't like the look of to disclose passwords for their electronic devices. The post, entitled Just no, reads as follows:
No, no and no.
This concise editorial opinion was followed by a small sample of the seething humanity that frequents Kiwiblog, all variously echoing their thought leader amidst cries of “no!” and lamentations on the loss of personal and business liberty. A couple of wry contributors did venture to ask what happened to the maxim ‘those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear’ so dear to the Right, but just two comments out of 59 actually expressed approval for the measure. This one:
I would feel comfortable giving my password to customs. All our emails, texts etc are trawled through by various governments to protect us from terrorists. I don’t think it is unreasonable to require people give access to their devices when they travel to check that they do not have any photos of child porn or plans of weapons of mass destruction.
And this one:
If something like this means that even one child abuser or scammer is identified and stopped then so be it. I don’t particularly want to hand over my email password at the border but I don’t have anything to hide either.
Despairing as they may read, these are the only comments featuring consistency or logic, as measured against the trust that Farrar and his readers have always pledged to the institutions ostensibly in charge of our national security.

The only thing that distinguishes a Customs officer going through the contents of your electronic device from one our spies – or, for the more credulous, an allied agency – doing the same, is that the Customs officer does it in front of you and you can see what they’re actually doing. In this respect, having one’s device searched at the border is merely a dramatisation of the interception that goes on all the time in a less personal but also much more efficient fashion, linking your communications with the communications of everybody else in search of patterns of thought and behaviour.

For once, then, the comments to Kiwiblog are interesting and relevant. Not only because they feature the immortal phrase ‘cultural Marxism has turned us into a nation of consumers and shoppers,’ but because in the jumble of untenable statements we might find contradictions to be exploited and spaces to occupy for political intervention.

Far from being indifferent, I believe that many if not most people, like Martin Van Beynen, know they should care – they’re just not sure how. 


Mandy Hager said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Giovanni Tiso said...

(I'm taking the liberty of editing a comment left by Mandy Hager due to name suppression issue. Only way I could do it in blogger is to repost it under my name.)

Not surprisingly, I guess, I find the Listener editorial about the timing of Nicky's latest articles ridiculous and one-sided. If they are hell-bent on running with this theme of supposed voter influencing behaviour, perhaps they should have pointed out the National govt's announcement of 6 new bridges (none of which are a priority in the local plan) or their bells and whistles announcement about fast broadband (which has been in the pipeline for ages) or their massaging of unemployment figures - or the fact they have carefully scheduled the bi-election before any details could possibly be released about Mike Sabin. To my mind, The Listener has now officially lost any credibility it once had.

Brett D said...

"How could it happen?" we ask, reading the history of the twentieth century's darkest hours and I discover the answer. "Like this, this is how its starts: with a snore."

Jan Rivers said...

So given the opening up of an opportunity (even if we are being played) what are the options for action? There is also recent US research that identifies a great deal of concern about surveillance including behaviour change

Current large scale campaigns like and the Anti-TPP work are just not getting the kind of cut through even though the climate and trade together with surveillance are THE issues of the century and that is a problem and an issue of the fitness of our media.

As far as the longer campaigns the really big campaigns like the Springbok tour, homosexual law reform and the anti-nuclear campaign required years and mass education campaigns. A broad based idea like the public good which looks at the quality of our democracy and the quality and deployment of our public services is where this issue could belong although there is little money and infrastructure - more a node in a network / idea worth pursuing than a formal campaign although that could change. Other possible homes for the campaigning work related to surveillance are Transparency International, Tech Liberty and the National Council of Civil Liberties.

I've thought of these campaign ideas for development :

The current issue - pure over-reach of role and linking to your point that device passwords is the physical manifestation of the surveillance already in place.

The discrepancy between 'the price of the club' on involvement in Iraq and the fiction that NZ is somehow not doing what the rest of the Five Eyes partners are doing.

The overwhelming difference in political power between one party that has the wealth to poll and focus group continuously as compared with most of the other parties who struggle to raise funds and can barely meet the permitted spending limits at election time. The corresponding power of ordinary people compared with corporate and business interests.

Ironically another chance to spell out the unhealthy issues surrounding the many hats of David Farrar - opinion forming blogger and pollster for the party of government, supporter of the Tax payers union would be on my list.

George Henderson said...

Behind the Springbok tour and the No-nukes protests were the victims; Sharpeville, Biko, Hiroshima, the Lucky Dragon.
That's what's missing. Find the victims, if they're reasonably sympathetic ones and not too scattered across space and time you can have a proper protest movement.

Ben Wilson said...

>Far from being indifferent, I believe that many if not most people, like Martin Van Beynen, know they should care – they’re just not sure how.

I know I care, but I also know my care is largely impotent, if too many other people don't care enough. So it's not that I don't know how to care, it's that I don't know what to do about that care. Over and above what I already do, that is, which isn't a lot.