Eleven and half thousand kilometres from my house, written in stone on the gates to one of the world’s largest data centres, are the words. “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. The words refer to the promise of surveillance to keep honest citizens safe. The words are seductive; most people don’t think they have anything to hide. Most people want terrorism thwarted, crimes solved, to live in safety.
But there’s a dark side to mass surveillance. Before New Zealand lurches towards becoming a surveillance society, lured by the dubious promise of safety and pulled along by the sophistication of the technology, we need to ask the question – is this the society we want to live in?
I’ll start with myself.
Riley Chance is a nom de plume. I don’t use the name because I’m a criminal on the run, avoiding tax or a secret agent in deep cover. I use the name to separate my writing from my ordinary, usually boring, life as I survive and keep the banks from taking my house, children and my partner’s dog.
I use a nom de plume because I want to maintain my privacy. I value privacy. I don’t like the idea that everything I do is recorded, whether I’m going to the library, attending a Black Lives Matter rally or out for dinner with a friend. These are activities people post on social media all the time; they choose to share them. But if they’ve been partying at a casino before busting out dance moves at a club then indulging in a 3am kebab, they may not choose to share their antics. That’s their choice.
Wanting privacy, choosing what you want the world to know about you, doesn’t equate to having something to hide. If you’re watched 24/7 with everything you do made public, you’ll live a different life (I wouldn’t have bought the kebab). This logic was immortalised by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his concept of the panoptical prison where prisoners believe a guard is watching them constantly from a central tower. I don’t have space to go further, but Bentham’s logic is worth understanding.
Everyone has something to hide. Would you allow the government to install a camera in your bedroom? If you would, you really need to get out more.
Cameras aren’t the only devices able to record our lives. Consider the cashless society, a seemingly inevitable advancement. Harmless, right? I mean, only criminals have bundles of cash. The rest of us … well, we have nothing to hide. We don’t care that every single transaction we make is recorded.
I need to tell you about a recent haircut. It wasn’t the haircut itself, that went fine, it was when I went to pay that I noticed the salon’s sign, We don’t accept cash.
“That makes sense,” I said to my stylist as I blithely swiped my card.
He leaned towards me, speaking quietly. “A few clients are upset.”
“They like to pay half in cash and half on their card.”
After a moment’s thinking I was none the wiser. “Why?”
“So their husband doesn’t know how much they’re spending on their hair.”
It was one of those aha moments.
Think about transactions you would rather keep private and not have appearing on a statement viewed by others (that kebab again). I can hear a lot of people saying, I’d be fine. I can equally imagine a lot of people staying quiet. Financial and psychological abuse is a tool employed by perpetrators of domestic violence. It is not only the state we need to consider as mass surveillance increases. Who can access what?
Recently, people trying to get mortgages had their spending habits reviewed by the bank, forcing them to curtail luxuries like coffee, in order for the bank to deem them responsible enough to be burdened with a mortgage. No visits to the TAB while the bank is looking over your shoulder. Did they have something to hide? Is a 3am kebab a sign of a dissolute character and bad credit risk?
At an individual level, mass surveillance has the potential to fundamentally alter how people live their lives. And if you don’t live your own life, who’s life are you living? It has strong echoes of New Zealand before we evolved to let people kiss, take to bed and marry whoever they love. Before that, society forced people to live a lie.
Sound overly dramatic? It couldn’t happen in New Zealand! Now there’s a statement I hear far too often. Let’s think for a moment about who’s behind the security cameras, and who has access to those brontobytes (yes, it’s a real term) of information. Ultimately, it’s the state, the New Zealand Government. There are many organisations or agencies between you and the state who scrutinise aspects of your life; your beloved bank, NZTA, Inland Revenue (bless them), the local council to name a few. Bound by privacy laws, they peek at your information to keep you on the straight and narrow. State agencies, such as the police, GCSB and SIS, have the authority to look deeper, although they are also bound by privacy laws … but they have ways to get around them.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the government is spying on New Zealanders without just cause, even though they have done in the past. My nervousness today is about the future shape of society if the state’s ability to watch our every move becomes normalised.
The world, society, governments and people change. What was previously a crime – same-sex marriage for example – is now openly celebrated. But the future is uncertain, the rights and freedoms we enjoy today aren’t guaranteed as the recent US Supreme Court decision overturning the Roe v Wade case tragically demonstrates.
Governments change laws and use the mechanisms at their disposal to enforce the law. Widespread high-tech surveillance aids in their ability to identify and apprehend those breaking the law. Hong Kong has few activists today after a law change making dissent against the Chinese state an offence. Those who publicly resisted stood little chance of evading detection. Surveillance camera footage can be analysed by powerful computer algorithms employing artificial intelligence, facial recognition and vehicle identification technology. Gone is the ability to melt into the crowd.
The potential danger this technology brings isn’t limited to future changes. Once the infrastructure is in place it can reach back into the past. Let’s imagine a new government comes to power with MPs who think abortion is murder and gay anything is an offence against God and nature (unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine). They change the law making homosexuality illegal. Putting the mass protests to one side, the state has the ability to trawl back through past footage to identify ‘individuals of interest’. They didn’t know it at the time, but walking along the beach hand-in-hand was something they did need to hide.
But it couldn’t happen in New Zealand. Could it? The key point is that widespread surveillance is as benign or malignant as those in power.