Friday, June 28, 2013



Freedom of information and requester privacy

There's an interesting spat brewing in the UK where, among their "alternative Queen's speech" aimed at returning the UK to the 1950's, the Conservatives have put up a member's bill requiring the identities of Freedom of Information Act requestors to be publicly disclosed. Why is this a bad idea? The Campaign for FOI counts the reasons:

What is the problem in requiring the publication of requesters' names? Once requests have been answered, there may be no objection to identifying the requesting organisations such as media bodies, campaign groups, professional bodies or companies.

Identifying individual requesters is a different matter. Many people use the FOI Act to obtain information about matters which directly affect them. The information they seek may not be personal, but their interest in it is. Someone who asks a social services department about the support provided to people with a particular condition living in particular circumstances may be describing their own situation. Publishing their names will suggest this to others. Where the inference is correct, the disclosure would be highly intrusive. As the law stands, it would also breach the Data Protection Act (DPA). There should be no question of identifying requesters seeking information about issues they face such as mental illness, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual orientation or learning disability.

Someone who believes they have been wrongly suspected of committing an offence may seek information from the police about the incident. Publishing their names may publicly identify them as a suspect.

A request may be prompted by suspicion that an authority or other body has behaved improperly. Naming the requester may reveal them as a potential whistleblower, exposing them to possible reprisals.

When someone asks for information about the spending, conduct or truthfulness of a minister or council leader, the first thing the politician may want to know is who is asking. If that person is an employee or someone dependent on the authority for a service, naming them may leave them vulnerable. Some FOI officers refuse to circulate the requester's name to others within their organisation, partly for these reasons.


When I request OIA statistics from Ministers and agencies, I am always clear that I don't want the subjects of individual requests, or the identities of requesters, for precisely these sorts of reasons. And as a requester, I'd be annoyed if a Minister was going around handing out my personal information willy-nilly without consultation.

(Meanwhile, I am now curious as to whether New Zealand agencies and Ministerial offices take internal precautions to protect the identities of those making sensitive requests. Or, alternatively, whether they have a process of googling for dirt on requesters. As the OIA is supposed to be requester-neutral, the latter would be a perversion of the process. But its exactly what I'd expect from Ministers such as Paula Bennett).

So what's the official practice in New Zealand? There are only two disclosure logs that I know of: the Dunedin City Council and NZTA. The former seems to redact for privacy, the latter so far includes only requests from media organisations, but identifies (and gives contact details) for the journalists who make those requests. The latter is a little bit dubious, IMHO, and should be reconsidered. There's also FYI, but everyone using the service has agreed to be named, and the site prohibits requests for personal information.

Even the Stasi are appalled by PRISM

East Germany's Stasi is considered the worst, most intrusive surveillance regime in the world. But even their former officers are appalled by what the NSA is doing:

Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

This is a warning we should listen to. A surveillance regime condemned by the Stasi as too intrusive is not one a democratic country should sign up for, or participate in. Rather than giving the GCSB more powers so they can expand the panopticon here, we should be saying "enough!", and severing all intelligence links with the United States.

Just irrational

No matter which way you look at it, this is just irrational:

The Government says it is difficult to estimate the social costs of the SkyCity convention centre deal but is nevertheless confident they will be outweighed by the benefits it brings.

In a recent briefing paper to his Cabinet colleagues, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce says gambling law concessions including allowing SkyCity to increase gaming machine numbers "might lead to an increase in the number of people seeking help for problem gambling''.

But while Mr Joyce has received official advice on the issue, he told his colleagues, ``It is difficult to quantify the potential size of any such increase or its consequences, which could include financial costs, effects on employment, crime, personal and family impacts, and treatment costs for persons affected''.


Joyce has refused to release his official advice, claiming it is "commercially sensitive". That's nonsense. This information is not about SkyCity's business, it is about how that business adversely affects the public of New Zealand. And that is something we have a fundamental right to know. And if Joyce thinks we won't like it if we see it, that tells us everything we need to know about his shoddy, corrupt little deal.

(As for releasing the information only once the deal has been made, that is not how democracy is supposed to work. If this deal is made in our name, then we have a right to know the details and debate them fully before it is signed. Otherwise it cannot possibly be regarded as binding, and in fact should be immediately repudiated)

Spying on journalists

So, it turns out that the Henry inquiry spied on Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance:

The journalist who was leaked a sensitive report on the nation's foreign spy network had her movements tracked by a government inquiry.

The MP forced to resign over the leak, Peter Dunne, said inquiry head David Henry detailed to him the movements of Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance in and out of the parliamentary precinct.

The conversation related to Vance's movements the day before the leaked report was published and appeared to be based on Henry having access to records of when she entered and left the building using her security swipe card.


The Prime Minister says it was nothing to do with him. So who authorised it? Because I can't imagine Parliamentary Services handing out this information without someone telling them to.

Meanwhile, it raises a host of deeply unpleasant questions. Was the Speaker consulted? If not, it seems like a prima facie breach of Parliamentary privilege. Do they spy on other journalists? Their backbenchers? The opposition? And most importantly, did they get GCSB to track Vance's movements outside Parliament using her cellphone? GCSB remember does not regard such spying using metadata as being outlawed by their legislation, and both Kitteridge and their "Inspector-General" basically gave a green light to doing so domesticly. And yet we've just had the perfect demonstration of how intrusive and powerful it is, and why it needs to be subject to judicial scrutiny and conduct only with a warrant: because otherwise, we're letting those in power spy on everything we do.

By spying on a journalist in Parliament, the Key government has once again abused our democracy. Journalists are not some interlopers in the parliamentary precinct, to be treated like burglars there to steal the family silver. They are a vital part of the democratic process, and their communications with politicians, whether government or opposition, ought to be given the highest degree of protection.

(Meanwhile, MPs are deeply concerned [PDF] about the thought that SIS and GCSB might be spying on them. They should spare a thought for the other components of our democracy too)

Thursday, June 27, 2013



Embarrassing

Well this is embarrassing for the government:

The Auckland Council has come out against the Government's deal for a convention centre to built in return for laws allowing increased casino gambling.

Casino operator SkyCity has agreed to build the $400 million centre, in return for Government concessions that include an extended licence, an extra 230 gaming machines and up to 60 gaming tables.

Thursday's vote does not affect the deal between the Government and SkyCity and is largely a symbolic gesture against the concessions. But the council is also demanding more measures to curb problem gambling and the release of a report on the social impacts of the deal.

Councillor Cathy Casey proposed the vote, which sparked lengthy debate before being passed by 10 votes to 7, and said it reflects anger that the Government has not consulted with Auckland over the deal.


Supposedly this deal is being done for the benefit of Auckland. But Auckland doesn't want it - at least, not with the social harm the government is attaching as a quid pro quo to its cronies. The government should listen to them, and revise the deal.

No freedom of speech in the UK

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are racist American bloggers who campaign against Muslims. And for that, they have been banned from entering the UK:

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who set up Stop Islamization of America, and run the website Jihad Watch, have been forbidden from entering the country on the grounds their presence would "not be conducive to the public good".

The far-right English Defence League was planning a march on Saturday ending in Woolwich, south-east London, where soldier Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered last month. Geller and Spencer were both set to attend.

A Home Office spokesman said: "We can confirm that Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are subject to an exclusion decision … We condemn all those whose behaviours and views run counter to our shared values and will not stand for extremism in any form."


Ironicly, one of those "shared values" is freedom of speech. And you don't protect it by silencing people. Geller and Spencer are undoubtedly vile. But the answer to speech you don't like is more speech, not less.

A timely reminder

Yesterday we saw amazing scenes in the Texas state Senate, as a 13-hour filibuster then a (Speaker-incited) riot in the gallery prevented the passage of a bill which would have effectively banned abortion in much of the state. Its the sort of thing which causes smugness about living in a sane country. But as Coley Tangerina reminds us, we shouldn't pretend that Texas is the place with the abortion problem. Abortion isn't a crime in Texas, but it is here. We have serious access problems too. And we too have harassment and intimidation (though no murders - yet). The upshot:

We are fighting to maintain what is not even a legal right. I can’t state that strongly enough – it is a battle just to maintain a status quo which sees abortion as illegal.

It’s not just because the opposition are relentless, senseless bullies. It’s not just because conservative organisations hold far too much monetary and perceived voter influence over our democratic representatives. It’s because the majority of the moderate people in power would rather avoid the subject all together.

So next time you think Texas, or the United States, are the ones with the problem with abortion, I suggest you think again. At least in Texas there was someone willing to stand for 13 hours to challenge the attack on abortion access.

In New Zealand, we’re just ignoring it.


Its a timely reminder of how far we have to go, and how chickenshit our politicians are on the topic.

Equality wins in the USA

The US made two vital rulings on same-sex marriage last night. In the first, they found that the Defence of Marriage Act - which outlaws federal recognition of same-sex marriages - is unconstitutional:

"Doma instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others," said the opinion, written by Kennedy and supported by a total of five of the nine court justices.

"The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the fifth amendment."


In the second, the court found that the hate group in California seeking a review of the state court ruling overturning Proposition 8 did not have standing to do so, as they had no "personal stake" in the outcome. Or, in English, bigots are not affected by same-sex marriage. While they didn't decide the case on the merits, given their ruling on DOMA, that would have been a foregone conclusion - as is now any challenge to the constitutionality of state-level prohibitions. While it may still take some years for the constitutional dust to settle, marriage equality is now going to be the law of the land in the US.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013



"Reasonable force"

So, the police's definition of "reasonable force" now includes pushing a compliant young girl over and smashing her front teeth in:

A police officer accused of assaulting a 15-year-old girl during a party in Auckland in February has been cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal investigation.

[...]

An internal investigation was carried out by police, who today released their finding that the officer alleged to have inflicted the injuries had acted appropriately.

"After a lengthy and very thorough investigation involving interviews with more than 80 people, including eye witnesses, residents, scientific experts and police officers at the scene, it has been established that the officer concerned used reasonable force given the circumstances faced by police at the time,'' said Counties-Manukau District Commander Superintendent John Tims .


Its a well-established principle that no person should be judge in their own case, and this once again proves it. And the victim isn't just this young girl, but our entire justice system. People need to be able to trust the police, but their partiality in their own cases, and their willingness to excuse their own crimes makes that impossible.

Spying on the innocent

So in addition to spying on its critics, the UK police spy on the innocent:

A national police unit that uses undercover officers to spy on political groups is currently monitoring almost 9,000 people it has deemed "domestic extremists".

The National Domestic Extremism Unit is using surveillance techniques to monitor campaigners who are listed on the secret database, details of which have been disclosed to the Guardian after a freedom of information request.

A total of 8,931 individuals "have their own record" on a database kept by the unit, for which the Metropolitan police is the lead force. It currently uses surveillance techniques, including undercover police, paid informants and intercepts, against political campaigners from across the spectrum.

Senior officers familiar with the workings of the unit have indicated to the Guardian that many of the campaigners listed on the database have no criminal record.


So why are these people? Largely environmentalists and left-wing campaigners for equality. Because they have stood up for a better society, they are spied on, their movements tracked, and their actions databased, even if they never break the law.

This is totalitarian, and it is a gross violation of human rights. And it is yet another sign of a police force out of control.

(Meanwhile: do New Zealand police have a similar database? We know they have a specialist anti-protest unit; how many innocent people are they spying on and tracking in what is essentially a campaign of political control?)

New Fisk

If it’s like father, like son, Emir Tamim will be no pushover

Winning the argument on Auckland rail

The government has changed its mind on the Auckland rail loop:

Prime Minister John Key has confirmed the Government is willing to support and contribute to Auckland's rail loop.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee earlier hinted at a major announcement in Auckland on Friday, understood to be a change of heart on the rail loop.

On his way to a parliamentary select committee meeting today, he said he would be in Auckland with Key that day.

Asked if there was a U-turn, he said: "It's not a U-turn, it's a loop."


So the Greens win the argument again. Good. Auckland needs a modern public transport infrastructure, and the rail loop will provide it. As for complaints about a "u-turn", isn't it a Good Thing if the government changes its mind in response to the evidence? Isn't that what we want? Or would we prefer a government which pig-headedly refused to do the obvious, simply for fear of being seen to "back down"?

As I write this, David Shearer in the House is pushing for the latter. Sometimes I really despair at our political culture.

(Meanwhile: the Greens have won the argument on Auckland rail, home insulation and child poverty. Maybe Labour should take a leaf from their book and try the same tactic of quiet, patient argument, rather than dumping its policies at the first focus group?)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013



The last resort of scoundrels

Having failed to win the argument for greater GCSB powers on the merits, John Key is now resorting to the unsavoury tactic of questioning people's patriotism. Those who oppose giving the GCSB carte blanche to spy on everything are accused of not being concerned about public safety, specifically from crime and terrorism. But who are the GCSB actually after? Kim Dotcom and Nigerian scammers.

But even if you accept Key's point rather than treating it as laughable, this is fundamentally a question of proportionality. The police already have powers to tap phones, intercept emails, and conduct surveillance under warrant. These powers are judicially supervised and proportional to the threat. For those conspiracy theorists who believe we need domestic spies to counter nebulous "threats", the SIS also has such powers, though with far less oversight. Whether you think it is about crime or terrorism, there is simply no justification for the massive, PRISM-style surveillance contemplated and permitted by this bill. We would not let the police wire every house in the country with video cameras to detect burglaries or domestic violence, no matter how much it kept us "safe". Neither should we let the GCSB listen to every phone call, read every email, and track everyone's movements via their cellphones. And neither should we let them circumvent the current prohibition on such by getting their foreign "partners" to do it for them.

If we believe a spy agency that spies on foreigners is necessary, then the GCSB already has appropriate powers to perform that role. But there is simply no justification for greater spying on New Zealanders. And anyone who hides behind "public safety" to try and justify it is simply an authoritarian engaging in the last resort of scoundrels.

Muppets

So, it turns out that the GCSB can't even source a PDF correctly:

the government decided to set up a special website for the New Zealand Intelligence Community, which includes the GCSB and the Security Intelligence Service, among others. To better inform citizens - and presumably to confirm or win their trust - they included a copy of their proposed legislation.

For some bizarre reason, the spies bypassed the copy on Parliament's website and the copies mass-distributed by the Prime Minister's office to take the copy uploaded by Mr Manning to The Daily Blog.


Still, I suppose it exposes their underlying mindset: steal data from the web.

But seriously, if they can't even set up a website properly, how are we supposed to believe that they will protect our privacy and obey the law properly? These people are muppets, and we shouldn't trust them to tie their own shoelaces, let alone with our privacy and human rights.

Guilty

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted of abuse of office and having sex with an underage prostitute. The sentence? Seven years imprisonment and a ban from public office. Sadly, I don't expect him to serve either. "Reforms" to Italy's justice system (made specifically to protect Berlusconi's friends) reduced the time-limit for cases, so all he has to do is drag it out through appeals, and the case will simply expire.

The question now is whether he will demand that Italy's coalition government pass new laws to protect him, and if so, whether they will agree. He can send the country back to the polls if he doesn't get his way, so he has a lot of leverage. But if that happens, then the credibility of Italy's democracy will take an even bigger dive.

Out of control II

The UK's police spying scandal has got worse. Yesterday, we learned they were spying on the family of murder victim Stephen Lawrence, who were trying to get the police to properly investigate his death. Today, we learn that they were spying on campaigns against police corruption and injustice:

Scotland Yard deployed undercover officers in political groups that sought to uncover corruption in the Metropolitan police and campaigned for justice for people who had died in custody, the Guardian can reveal.

At least three officers from the controversial Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) spied on London-based activist groups.

Mark Jenner, an undercover officer, used the identity "Mark Cassidy" in the 1990s to penetrate the Colin Roach Centre, which was named after a 21-year-old black British man who died in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station in north-east London. The campaigners worked with people who said they had been mistreated, wrongfully arrested or assaulted by police in the local borough – Hackney – which was at the time mired in a serious corruption scandal.

[...]

A second SDS spy was used to gather intelligence on another group that represented the victims of police harassment and racist attacks in a neighbouring part of east London. The second spy, whose identity is not known, did not infiltrate the Newham Monitoring Project directly, but got inside associated groups and was able to monitor its activities.


So, criticise the British police, get treated like a criminal. And they wonder why people have no faith in them...

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has called for an investigation, and there's talk of prosecutions. I'll believe it when I see it. The British establishment always covers for its own, as this spying shows...

Monday, June 24, 2013



No case to answer

Graham McCready has launched four private prosecutions against Peter Dunne:

Three were allegations of breaches against the Crimes Act, linked to allegations Dunne leaked a copy of a report into the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

The fourth alleged fraud, linked to Dunne being awarded parliamentary funding as the leader of a political party, when UnitedFuture had insufficient numbers to declare that the party had 500 members.


Unlike his other cases against Trevor Mallard and John Banks, I think there's not a hope in hell of any of these going anywhere. On the fraud charge, the Bill of Rights 1688 bars the courts from inquiring into Parliamentary business (and whether a disclosure is made to the Speaker / whether a party should be recognised by the Speaker is very much the business of Parliament). On the former cases, Stuff is sadly nonspecific about the exact charges, but they're likely to be either espionage or some variations of wrongful communication, retention, or copying of official information. The first thing to note is that all of these offences require that the information disclosed be "likely to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand". That's a joke, and John Key has said as such. The second point is that they all require the consent of the Attorney-General, which given the first point is unlikely to be forthcoming. The third point is that one of the limbs of wrongful communication specifically refers to official information, defined in the same terms as used in the Official Information Act (that is, held by certain specified bodies). But if the allegation is that Dunne leaked official information held by the Intelligence and Security Committee, then that cannot be true, because the ISC is not subject to the OIA and so its information is not "official information". Similarly he cannot have leaked material held by a Minister (in this case himself) in an official capacity because he did not hold the Kitteridge report in such a capacity (it was given to him as a government coalition partner, not as a Minister).

What about the other limbs? They require the intent to prejudice the security and defence of New Zealand - see point one above - or that Dunne had been ordered to return the report before he leaked it (which there's been no suggestion of). Basically its difficult to see any case whatsoever. And I think if there was, the police would have stepped in already.

Says it all

How bad is GCHQ's totalitarian surveillance? This comment in the Guardian from a UK intelligence source says it all:

The source claimed that even the conventional warrant system has been distorted – whereas police used to ask for a warrant before intercepting a target's communications, they will now ask GCHQ to intercept the target's communications and then use that information to seek a warrant.

The UK's spies are being used to do an end-run around laws properly restricting police surveillance. And if the GCSB gets the new powers it wants, this will undoubtedly happen here too.

How bad does it have to get?

Over the weekend we learned that Britain's GCHQ was tapping every international cable going into the UK, recording all internet traffic, and sharing it with the NSA under a very dubious interpretation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The spying wa so extensive that even MI5 - who are not exactly friends of privacy and human rights - thought it was going too far. This raises a couple of interesting questions.

Firstly, did GCHQ share any of their data with the GCSB? And was any of that data about New Zealanders? Note that such sharing would be illegal under the current GCSB Act, which covers not just physical interception, but also acquisition even of summaries from foreign partners. Questions need to be asked in Parliament about this.

Secondly, is the GCSB doing this or planning to do this here? At this stage, I think its worth noting the Spy Bill's proposed new section 15A (1) (a) (ii), which would allow GCSB to intercept any "communications that are sent from, or are being sent to, an overseas country". This would be subject to their proposed revised section 14, which forbids interception the communications of New Zealanders, but note that that only applies to the GCSB's foreign intelligence function. If they say its for the purposes of "cybersecurity", to "allow the GCSB to see who (namely New Zealand individuals and companies) is being attacked", then they can spy on us as much as they want, and share it all with their foreign "partners".

Thirdly, and most importantly: how bad does it have to get to convince Peter Dunne and Winston Peter to vote against the bill? Seriously. What we're seeing from overseas is a mindset of total surveillance for total control, which (charitably) skirts all legal oversight. And the spy bill reflects that mindset and enables such action here. Is that really the sort of New Zealand Dunne and Peters believe in? One where the government taps every phone call, reads and databases and datamines every email and web visit, just in case we're up to anything naughty are targeted by Nigerian scammers? Really?

The acid needs to go on these two to declare their opposition for the bill. And if they don't, and it passes, we should be very clear on who is to blame for our new totalitarian internet surveillance state.

New Fisk

The three things that always accompany occupation

Out of control

In 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racist thugs. His family spent the next 19 years trying to get justice from a racist police force that didn't give a shit. And in retaliation, the UK police used undercover cops to spy on them:

A police officer who spent four years living undercover in protest groups has revealed how he participated in an operation to spy on and attempt to "smear" the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, the friend who witnessed his fatal stabbing and campaigners angry at the failure to bring his killers to justice.

Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer turned whistleblower, said his superiors wanted him to find "dirt" that could be used against members of the Lawrence family, in the period shortly after Lawrence's racist murder in April 1993.

He also said senior officers deliberately chose to withhold his role spying on the Lawrence campaign from Sir William Macpherson, who headed a public inquiry to examine the police investigation into the death.


The purpose of the spying? To discredit the Lawrence's campaign for justice and end its criticism of the police. It was not about preventing crime, or even preserving "public order", but about protecting the jobs and reputations of police officers.

The coercive powers of the state should not be deployed for this purpose. Those who approved their misuse in this fashion should be prosecuted for it.

(Meanwhile, also in the "out of control police" category: it turns out that the infamous "McLibel" leaflet, which led to the UK's most long-running trial was co-written by an undercover cop. Given that they were willing to spy on innocent people and frame protesters in an effort to silence the Lawrences, what are the odds they were willing to frame people for libel to bury Greenpeace?)

Friday, June 21, 2013



Losing their soul?

Bryce Edwards headlines his roundup today with the question "Is the Green Party losing its soul", referring to its decision to drop the policy of "quantitative easing". Materialism aside, I'd answer Edwards' question in the negative. Why? Because while monetary policy may be the soul of the ACT party, its a peripherial policy for the Greens.

The Greens' "soul" is in their charter, which commits them to values of ecological wisdom, social responsibility, appropriate decision-making and non-violence. No mention of monetary policy there, and it doesn't connect tightly with any of the core values (unlike, say, their energy, transport, and social policies). Which makes it very much peripheral. As such, its constrained to measures which do not interfere strongly with those core values, but that still leaves an enormous policy space open. Complaining that abandoning a peripheral policy (whose time may have passed anyway) is "selling out" is simply melodramatic. Get back to me when they abandon their position on climate change, energy efficiency or child poverty, or support a coal mine in a National Park.

That said, I agree that Normans' attempts to pretend that he wasn't backing down on anything were clumsy and unprincipled. There's no shame in admitting that you've changed your mind, or that a policy's time has passed (but that you'll advocate it again under the right circumstances), and our politics would be a lot healthier if our politicians did it more often.

The fallout

More NSALeaks - this time news that Skypr collaborated with the NSA to allow them to tap its user's phone calls. I guess that's their business down the drain. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Ross Anderson points out that its not just governments and big corporations with valuable IP which need to be concerned about cloud-storage, but also doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers:

[S]ome of our patients and clients surely will be [of interest to the NSA]. As well as being an academic, I also do occasional expert-witness work, mostly in computer forensics. A few years ago I had a defendant in a terrorism trial as a client. I cannot use a US webmail service if it will leak attorney-client conversations straight to the prosecution...

But you can't always tell in advance which cases might be sensitive. A client I recently helped to get acquitted of a rather dubious fraud charge turned out to be a refugee from a South Asian country whose secret police work closely with the Americans. This emerged only after I'd accepted instructions. So I'd better have a non-US service for all client work...

The third problem is that, even if a client is completely innocent of any wrongdoing, machine-learning algorithms can tar him with guilt by association. If a system just uses Bayesian probability, without paying attention to social context or legal rights, then it may well stigmatise any service that's had anything to do with terrorists in the past. The implications for NGOs like Liberty or law firms like Bindmans are clear. If we don't want to risk innocent clients ending up on no-fly lists and watch lists (or ending up on a list ourselves) then we shouldn't use communications that the NSA's search engines can devour.


He suggests using an EU cloud provider instead of a US one. But firstly, the providers aren't exactly transparent about where their servers actually are. And secondly, EU intelligence agencies can't exactly be trusted either (but then, at least EU citizens have democratic control over them, Supposedly).

The NSA have probably just destroyed cloud providers' entire business model. Their business depends fundamentally on trust - that they'll keep our data secure, and not hand it out to anyone but us. The NSA has destroyed that trust. The upshot? The cloud can not be used for anything but the most trivial data. Writing larps and storing lolcats on it is fine. Anything serious with privacy, professional or business implications is probably a no-no.

About time

National is finally putting the government banking contract out to tender. About time. The contract was awarded to Westpac over 20 years ago without a competitive tender, and there's no evidence that we're getting value for money. Meanwhile, the company spends thousands on bribing Ministers with extraordinary corporate hospitality, lending an appearance of corruption (which of course John Key is quite comfortable with).

One thing which is unclear yet is whether the government's new banker will be required to be a good corporate citizen and pay its taxes. Westpac stole almost a billion dollars from us over the years, and the other Aussie banks are the same. We should not be giving large government contracts to tax cheats. If they want our business, the least they can do is obey the law and pay their fair share.

Thursday, June 20, 2013



An admission from the GCSB

The government's spy bill is currently before the Intelligence and Security Committee. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Papers around it have finally gone online. And the second of them [PDF] contains a very interesting admission. During its whining about why the GCSB Act is "not fit for purpose", it says:

The core activity of “intercepting communications” described in section 8 was designed to be technology-neutral while defining the Bureau’s unique signals intelligence role within New Zealand’s intelligence community. But “intercept” and “communication” are defined so broadly in the Act that they can be read in such a way as to capture activities which do not involve interception in any ordinary sense of the word – such as exchanging foreign intelligence reporting or even imagery data with an overseas partner. This lack of clarity has created uncertainty and therefore risk for the Bureau in undertaking core business.

[Emphasis added]

To see what they're complaining about, let's go to the definitions. A "communication" is just that. But
intercept includes hear, listen to, record, monitor, acquire, or receive a communication, or acquire its substance, meaning, or sense

Which clearly covers not just directly listening in to and recording communications, but also receiving them or receiving summaries of them from other agencies.

This shouldn't actually be a problem if the GCSB stuck to what it was authorised to do by Parliament - spying on foreigners. It is only a problem if they are receiving copies or summaries of the communications of New Zealanders from their foreign partners - that is, if they are using those partners to circumvent the law against spying on New Zealanders. People have long suspected GCSB (along with GCHQ and NSA) does such "swapsies" to circumvent local bans - and GCSB appear to have just admitted it to Cabinet.

The new spy law would legalise that practice (as well as enable GCSB to directly spy on kiwis on a massive scale "allow the GCSB to see who (namely New Zealand individuals and companies) is being attacked"). We cannot let them do this. Instead, this agency has become an active threat to New Zealand's democracy. They need to be defunded and shut down.

The Cypriot failout

Back in March, the EU started a bank-run in Cyprus, then imposed a bailout which basically ended Cyprus' role as an international banking hub. At the time I though that this would be a failure, and the collapse of the Cypriot banking sector would mean another bailout in a few year's time. I was wrong: it has happened even sooner:

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades has urged eurozone leaders to revise the terms of his country's bank bailout, in a highly critical letter.

He said the "haircut" imposed on large deposits under the 10bn-euro (£8.6bn) bailout had significantly eroded the capital kept by businesses in banks.

Losses were imposed on big deposits in Bank of Cyprus (BoC) and Laiki Bank. BoC is now in trouble, the letter said.

So, a bailout aimed at preventing contagion instead caused it, while causing untold misery in the process. That gurgling sound you can hear is the EU's legitimacy going even further down the drain.

Joined-up government

Last month, we learned that the government had considered refusing to renew the passports of student loan debtors. People were naturally curious about this, and so someone used FYI, the public OIA request website, to request all advice from the Department of Internal Affairs about the proposal. As the body responsible for issuing passports, you'd expect them to know something about it. But apparently not:

The information you have requested is more closely connected to the functions of the Inland Revenue Department. I have therefore transferred your request to IRD for consideration...

So, the department you'd expect to be responsible for the policy doesn't know anything about it. I think that speaks for itself about the seriousness of the proposal.

Geddis on the Electoral Commission

So Peter Dunne got his hearing before the Electoral Commission, and as expected they clung to bronze-age technology and demanded signed physical forms as proof of membership. Their sole concession to the 21st century was that they would accept scans of those forms - but in their view, the only valid way to join a political party is to make scratches on a piece of compressed plant matter. On Twitter last night there wre a few people saying "its the law" - but its not the law. The law says that evidence of membership must be submitted "in a form approved by the Electoral Commission". It does not say what that form must be. This is a purely administrative decision of the Commission, and one which seems completely at odds with modern society. Its like requiring payment by cheque or cash, or requiring job applications to be handwritten rather than typed.

Writing on Pundit, Andrew Geddis has a suggestion:

I do wonder, therefore, if there might not be some room for the Commission to think about developing a process whereby parties can accept online membership applications in place of paper ones. After all, there is no statutory requirement that a party member physically sign a membership application in order to count as a "current financial member" (as there presently is to enrol to vote - which is the main obstacle to any move to full online enrollment). And it is not an offence for someone to falsely sign up as a party member using a fake name and address, so someone adding a made-up signature to a document doesn't carry any extra legal consequences.

Therefore, it is not clear what added value there is in a requirement that parties only may claim "current financial members" using physical membership forms with signatures attached. A printout of 500 completed on-line forms containing the information necessary for the Commission to check whether each person really is eligible to enrol as an elector, along with evidence that the person has paid any relevant membership fee, would seem just as able to provide the necessary basis for the Commission to accept that the party has met the legislative requirement to register.

I agree. And as for suggestions that this will encourage party secretaries to make false claims about membership, the law requires them to sign a statutory declaration. The penalty for doing that falsely is three years imprisonment. If that was actually enforced, them it should provide a strong incentive for party officials to get things right.

The problem of SOEs

Fifteen years ago, Nicky Hager exposed how state-owned enterprise Timberlands West Coast was spending millions of dollars of taxpayer's money to fund political operations against its owners, the people of New Zealand. The core problem? An SOE that behaved as if it was a private company, with no democratic responsibilities. Fifteen years on, it looks like Solid Energy had a serious case of the same disease.

In retrospect, the spying on protestors should have been a warning sign. But its only since the company's collapse that we've seen how deep the rot went: a refusal to accept Treasury oversight, and now news that they spent $48,000 hiring lobbyists Saunders-Unsworth to advise them on how to bullshit Parliament:

High-profile lobbyists were called in to help Solid Energy bosses dodge questions from media and opposition MPs about the coal miner's financial woes, and the advice was also shared with Treasury and ministers.

The company's $389 million debt was revealed earlier this year, and its bosses sought advice from government relations and lobbying firm Saunders Unsworth before fronting up to a parliamentary select committee in March.

Newly appointed chairman Mark Ford told the committee he was unable to answer questions on the state-owned company's fall from financial success, saying he had not been there at the time.

However, Labour has obtained documents showing Saunders Unsworth advised Solid Energy's bosses to keep responses to MPs' questions as short as possible.

"The longer you talk, the more likely it will be that you trigger a range of questions that will not be pleasant," the advice said.


As with Timberlands, this displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between an SOE, Parliament, and the people of New Zealand. These people are supposed to work for us. And that means being monitored by Treasury and fully and frankly answering any questions Parliament asks. Failing to do so isn't just a contempt of Parliament; its an attack on the entire idea that government entities are accountable to Parliament, and through it, to us.

Sadly, Ministers appear to have colluded in this. That's disturbing too. Ministers are supposed to be the first layer of oversight on SOE's, not enablers of their anti-democratic behaviour. By approving Solid Energy's behaviour, Tony Ryall and Bill English have failed in their fiduciary duty to Parliament to represent our ownership interest of these companies. And that's just not acceptable.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013



Some "reforms"

Yesterday the Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell explained his contentment with National gutting his Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill by saying that they would be announcing some reforms today. So what are these "reforms"? A tiny increase in the amount pokies must return to the community:

Gambling trusts will have to return more pokie machine proceeds to the community under law changes announced by Government today.

[...]

At present, gambling societies or trusts which redistributed pokie proceeds had to return a minimum of 37 per cent of this money to sports groups and other community organisations.

Mr Tremain said he had proposed that this threshold increase, initially to 40 per cent and later to between 43 and 45 per cent.

An extra 3%? Whoop-di-shit. Flavell's bill called for 80%, not 40, and for those profits to go directly to the communities they were gouged from, rather than being spent on sports clubs on the other side of town (or the other end of the country). And even that minimal gain has a nasty clawback: longer licences for operators.

This isn't "reform" - its a sick joke. And the Maori Party's support of it is even sicker.

An awful precedent

For the past 70 years, New Zealand has pursued a foreign policy based around human rights and international law. But as Tracey Barnett points out in the Herald, National's new refugee detention law changes all that:

The truth is, human rights are just not particularly fashionable right now.

There is a cold wind blowing in this part of the world - and I fear we've just caught the sickness. It is one spreading through the Five Eyes Alliance, (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and we have been the last to fall ill to it.

[...]

New Zealand has established a horrible new precedent: We have now said to the world we don't have to honour the international laws we have pledged to uphold. Countries around the world who have asylum numbers in the tens of thousands annually look at us, confounded.

I'm not sure what is more frightening: Now that this precedent has fallen, how easily others will crumble too. Or, in our innocence, that we keep telling ourselves it will never happen here.


This is going to have consequences. We're a small country, with nothing much to offer anyone; as a result, our foreign policy is basically mana-based. Our ability to get what we want depends crucially on our strong advocacy of human rights and international law. Step away from that, break our commitments, and other countries will care about us about as much as we care about Zambia or Jamaica. Our entire independent foreign policy goes out the window; rather than having our own voice and being able to make our own deals in our own interests, we'll be reduced to a US client again, getting whatever crumbs they deign to give us.

National doesn't care about that; all they care about is toadying to the strong by kicking the weak. The rest of us should care. National's actions are robbing us of our international voice and attacking our national identity. And if we want it to stop, we need to kick them out of government.

Labour and Christchurch East

So the worse-kept secret in Christchurch is out, and Lianne Dalziel is officially running for mayor. Which means a by-election of she wins, which in turn requires a Labour candidate. So naturally, Labour are talking about parachuting Clayton Cosgrove - a man without a connection to the area, but with a very strong connection to David Shearer - into the seat, so they can in turn get Kelvin Davis - another man with a strong connection to David Shearer - in off the list.

This encapsulates everything that is wrong with the Labour Party: taking their voters for granted, treating their support like a gift from the leadership rather than something which must be won, and the infection of everything with their petty internal politics. And then they wonder why people treat them with contempt? We're only returning the favour...

But then, I'm not a member of Labour, and I don't live in Christchurch East, so I don't really have a stake in this except insofar as I'd like Labour to grow up and pull their weight rather than leaving everything to the Greens. For the views of people who do have a stake, I recommend Rebuilding Christchurch and Emma Hart. Needless to say, they're not impressed either.

Jailing the bankers

Since the LIBOR scandal, the UK's Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards has been grappling with how to make bankers behave responsibly and not destroy the economy with their scams. Their solution? Jail the fuckers:

Senior bankers guilty of reckless misconduct should be jailed, a long-awaited report on banking commissioned by the government has recommended.

[...]

"Too many bankers, especially at the most senior levels, have operated in an environment with insufficient personal responsibility," the report says.

"Senior executives were aware that they would not be punished for what they could not see and promptly donned the blindfolds.

"Where they could not claim ignorance, they fell back on the claim that everyone was party to a decision, so that no individual could be held squarely to blame - the Murder on the Orient Express defence."


So instead they're going to have clear statutory responsibilities with criminal penalties for recklessly ignoring them - a form of economic "command responsibility".

(Meanwhile, back here in New Zealand, our own regulator, the Financial Markets Authority, is trying to move in the opposite direction, calling for an end to a "culture of blame" when financial scammers and con-artists rip us off. Wouldn't it be nice to have a regulator who wasn't a total captive of the industry they supposedly regulate?)

The question now is whether these good proposals to make the wielders of economic WMD responsible for their use makes it through the UK Parliament, or whether it is watered down by the City lobbying machine. Sadly, given how dependent all the UK's major parties are on the bankers, my money is on the latter.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013



Sell-outs

Yesterday when the Commerce Committee gutted Te Ururoa Flavell's Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill, I wondered what the Maori Party would do about it. The answer is the same thing they do every time National shits all over them and their constituents: nothing:

Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell has accepted a major rewriting of his Gambling Harm Reduction Bill in order to secure National Party support for it, prompting the Green Party and Labour to pull their support and call for him to withdraw the bill altogether.

Mr Flavell's bill was reported back to select committee yesterday with all of its main provisions either removed or weakened.

Mr Flavell said he had not yet seen the report but did not expect to withdraw the bill.


And then they wonder why people see them as sell-outs. This is why: putting the good relationship with National - and Pita Sharple's mortgage - before principles and their people.

Tracking the tax-cheats

Back in April, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began their series on offshore secrets, investigating the global tax-cheating industry. The series was based on an enormous leak, a database covering a decade of operations of tax-cheating companies in the British Virgin islands, Cook Islands, and other tax havens. And now the ICIJ have stuck the ownership details extracted from that database online:

Readers can search information about the ownership of more than 100,000 offshore entities in tax havens and discover the networks around them.

[...]

The Offshore Leaks Database allows users to search through more than 100,000 secret companies, trusts and funds created in offshore locales such as the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands and Singapore. The Offshore Leaks web app, developed by La NaciĆ³n newspaper in Costa Rica for ICIJ, displays graphic visualizations of offshore entities and the networks around them, including, when possible, the company’s true owners.

Its impossible to overstate how important this is. The entire tax-cheat industry relies on secrecy about who owns (and therefore who owes) what. Now that's been blown open. I expect some very rich people are going to be getting some very expensive visits from the tax office as a result.

The database is available here (oddly with a disclaimer saying that not everyone who uses offshore entities is a tax cheat - some are just criminals and spies instead). Searching it for new Zealand turns up 11 officers and master clients (including HSBC bank and Masterfoods), 19 offshore entities, and a staggering 189 addresses for people nominally running these scam-companies (as it is a bit of an industry here). Hopefully the IRD will be paying a few of them a visit.

Submit!

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has called for submissions on the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. The due date is Thursday, 25 July 2013. You can either use the form linked above, or send two copies to

Transport and Industrial Relations Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Wellington
The bill will allow employers to refuse to "opt-out" (refuse to negotiate) multi-employer collective agreements, and abolish the good faith requirement to conclude collective bargaining. Essentially it will allow employers to simply refuse to negotiate with unions at all (while, if National has their way, locking out their workers and hiring scabs instead). And this of course means lower wages, worse conditions, and ultimately lower living standards for ordinary kiwis.

A victory for free media in Greece

Last week, the Greek government pulled the plug on state broadcaster ERT. Now, the courts have ordered it back on air. But only in the interim - they endorsed the idea of restructuring, just not cutting it off immediately.

In the meantime, the government's high-handed actions have upset its coalition partners, who were not consulted, and it is now threatening to cause the collapse of the coalition and a snap election. This is being greeted with horror by the NeoLiberals, who are using phrases like "possible destruction of the country" if they're forced to go to the polls. Which I think perfectly illustrates their contempt for democracy and the people they supposedly represent. If Greece has an election over this, the country will go on - but a large pack of the parasitic and institutionally corrupt MPs who have sold their country out to the IMF will not. And that can only be a Good Thing.

Monday, June 17, 2013



Fundamentally compromised

Today's in NSALeaks, the news that GCHQ spied on foreign diplomats at the 2009 G20 summit, compromising their cellphones, emails, and internet communications (including by the ingenious method of setting up fake internet cafes loaded with keyloggers and other spyware to capture diplomat's communications and passwords). This should cause us to ask a couple of questions here in New Zealand.

Firstly, have our supposed "allies" spied on us in this way? Probably, because international friendship means nothing in such negotiations. Similarly, it is likely that the GCSB has pulled similar dirty tricks where we have hosted diplomatic events, which tarnishes our role as an honest broker (there's probably a scoop waiting for some journalist if they start tracking down ownership of internet cafes around venues for diplomatic events we have hosted, such as APEC or the Pacific Forum; likewise a fun game for protesters of picketing such cafes with warning signs).

Secondly, and more importantly: has the GCSB done everything it could to prevent our "allies" spying on us in this way? This after all is their fundamental job: to ensure the security of government communications. The problem is that its a bit difficult to do so when you have a partnership with those foreign spies, and where protecting your own communications means revealing their capabilities and methods (which the GCSB will have agreed to keep secret in order to benefit from their intelligence).

This exposes a fundamental conflict of interest between the GCSB's two roles, created entirely by its relationship with foreign agencies. Bluntly, it cannot protect our government's communications while working in partnership with foreign agencies in the way that it does. We need to choose, between a spy agency which works for us, and one which will betray our interests to protect its relationship with the US and UK. And put that way, the choice is obvious.

New Fisk

Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria
As the US wants to arm 'nice Syrian rebels' we must remind ourselves that weapons are not just guns. They are about money
Now I really don't want to appear on the Newseum's shameful list

Against karakia in schools

Over the weekend the Herald reported that teachers at Kelston Intermediate were objecting to being forced to lead pupils in a karakia every morning. They're right. The Education Act 1964 is crystal clear: teaching at intermediate schools (which are primary schools according to the Act's interpretation clauce) "shall be entirely of a secular character". That means that prayers in any language are inappropriate, and pretending its a "cultural practice" doesn't change that. If the school wants to hold religious observances, it must either do it outside normal school hours, or seek special permission from the Minister - and in both cases attendance cannot be compulsory. And regardless, it is inappropriate (and a violation of the right to freedom of religion) to require teachers to lead such observances.

This is settled law, and the school's Board of trustees should know that. And so should Pita Sharples. While karakia may be entirely normal in pupil's homes, it is not appropriate in schools. Compulsory schooling is not a vehicle for the religious beliefs of the majority to be rammed in the face of the minority (or vice versa, for that matter).

Meanwhile, its worth noting that while primary students are protected in this way, because secondary education was not compulsory when the original clause was passed in 1914, high school students are not. That has to change. Anyone want to take a member's bill to do it?

The revolving door

The Herald reports on new Speaker David Carter's generosity in approving Parliamentary access passes to lobbyists. But in the process, they miss the real story: the revolving door between government and lobbying:

Three former ministerial advisers are among those give easy-access cards in the past year: Air New Zealand's Phil de Joux, who used to be John Key's deputy chief of staff; Anadarko's Anita Ferguson, who was Steven Joyce's press secretary, and Fonterra's Nicola Willis, who was an adviser and speech-writer for Mr Key.

All three of these people are leveraging relationships built in government service for private gain. That is not only ethically dubious; it degrades the reputation of Parliament, and raises the question of whether the advice they gave in their previous position was affected by their desire to gain outside employment (a question which also arises about members of the Parliamentary press gallery when they move to better-paid positions as political spindoctors). Granting them the special favour of free access to Parliament degrades it even further, and raises questions about what other favours they are getting from Ministers.

Some countries prohibit former public servants from leveraging their relationships in this way, by barring them from employment as lobbyists for a period. That would be a big step, but I think the least we can do to clean up our politics is to not enable such individuals. And the first way of doing that is to stop showing them special favour. If they want to talk to Ministers, let them wait in the queue with everybody else.

Gutted

The Commerce Committee has reported back on Te Ururoa Flavell's Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill. But while they've recommended that it be passed with amendments, the bill has basically been gutted, turned from a tool to reduce gambling harm to one to increase it.

As originally drafted, the bill would have required that gambling profits be distributed in the communities they were extracted from, rather than given to rich people's "charities" at the other end of the country; eliminated corrupt "pokie trusts" and given the job of distributing funds to elected local authorities; prohibited the use of gambling proceeds to fund racing and racing stakes (i.e. more gambling); allowed local authorities to impose tighter restrictions in specific suburbs; and required the use of tracking technology to show users how much they had lost. The amended bill does none of these things. Instead, it allows pokie operators to circumvent existing legislation by allowing grandfathered sites (which are allowed more than the current cap of nine machines) to retain their licence if they relocate. Oh, the government will gain the ability to regulate around profits and player-tracking technology, but that's not the same as a statutory requirement.

These amendments were imposed by the National majority on the committee. The conclusion? That party is the bought-and-paid-for servant of the gambling industry. They are not interested in eliminating pokie corruption (because it is their mates doing it, stealing money from the poor to pave their own driveways and support their own hobbies).

Meanwhile, the Labour Party did not issue a minority report on the bill, and instead "reserve[d] its position". Clayton Cosgrove was on the committee. Clayton Cosgrove was also in SkyCity's corporate box last week. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

Friday, June 14, 2013



Time for Invercargill to buy the smelter?

Rio Tinto has written down the value of Tiwai Point to next to nothing:

The Australian majority owners of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, Rio Tinto, have written more than half a billion dollars off the value of the ageing plant, leaving it with a value on its books of just $14.8 million, from $606.9 million previously.

The decision was made in February but has been only disclosed today with the lodging of financial accounts with the New Zealand Companies Office for Rio Tinto Alcan NZ, the subsidiary that owns 79 per cent of the smelter, which has operated near Bluff since 1971.


Which raises the question: if its that cheap, why doesn't Invercargill try and put together a local consortium to buy it? If they seriously believe it has a future, this seems like an excellent opportunity for them to put their money where their mouth is (and reap the rewards if they're right).

Too radical

So, it looks like Jamie-lee Ross's Scab Bill is too radical even for the Employers and Manufacturers' Association:

A leading business lobby warns a strike-breaking bill to come before Parliament will prove ''divisive'' and could be a bridge too far.

[...]

"New Zealand communities place a high value on fairness and the Bill could have consequences that would be considered unfair.

"In spite of several high profile cases we have had 10 to 15 years of harmonious workplace relations and don't want to jeopardise that."


The EMA are no shrinking violets when it comes to putting the boot into workers. But even they can recognise that this is the sort of law which invites a reaction, which is likely to be unpleasant for employers. Ross would be wise to listen, and withdraw his bill from the Order Paper.

Blinding the public in Greece

The Greek government has shut down its state broadcaster "to save money":

Greek state TV and radio were gradually pulled off the air late on Tuesday, hours after the government said it would temporarily close all state-run broadcasts and lay off about 2,500 workers as part of a cost-cutting drive demanded by the bailed-out country's international creditors.

TV and radio stations of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, or ERT, were pulled off the air in several parts of the country from about 11pm (9pm BST), about an hour before the government said all signals would go dead, although satellite broadcasts continued.

The conservative-led government said ERT would reopen "as soon as possible" with a new, smaller workforce. It wasn't immediately clear how long that would take, and whether all stations would reopen.


I guess its far easier to impose "reforms" and sell off the country if there is no independent media there to keep an eye on you.

The good news is that the Greek people aren't taking this lying down. And neither are the ERT staff - they've seized control of their studios and are still broadcasting with the assistance of the European Broadcasting Union. The government's response has been to threaten to send in riot police to shut them up - which tells you what this is really about: blinding the public and stifling criticism.

New Fisk

Iran election: Farewell Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we’ll miss you – but not that much...

A dark day for New Zealand

Last night, the Immigration Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament. The bill allows for the indefinite detention of refugees who arrive in a "mass arrival" (30 or more people), and to allow the processing of refugee claims to be suspended indefinitely by order of the Minister, in violation of the Refugee Convention. In other words, we've just signed up to Australia's racist, xenophobic refugee policy.

Why? Its not as if we have hordes of refugee boats arriving here, after all, or that such refugees turn out to be ineligible (in fact, looking at the Australian experience, most prove their claims for asylum by demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution). But to riff on some stuff Gordon Campbell posted in relation to surveillance and terrorism, its not about the threat to New Zealand, but about the threat to New Zealand politicians' careers. A mass arrival would inevitably cause criticism, and distract the government form its policy programme. And the only thing worse than a mass-arrival is a mass-arrival where the Department of Labour leaks that it was denied the authoritarian tools it thought it needed to prevent it. So, the politicians crack down not to protect us, but to protect themselves. And refugees are their helpless punching bags in the process.

It is vile, brutal, bullying politics, kicking those who are already down and making their lives miserable essentially for PR reasons. But its so very, very National, isn't it?

We are supposed to be a better country than this. We certainly think we ought to be better than the Australians. This law must be repealed. The question now is whether labour - who rightly opposed it - will actually do so when they next gain power.

Thursday, June 13, 2013



Extended

According to the Parliamentary website, submissions on the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill have been extended for a week to 21 June 2013.

Unfortunately the time the Committee has to consider the bill has not been extended - they still have to report back by 26 July. So they'll have only one month (rather than the usual three) to consider complex and far-reaching changes to GCSB powers. This doesn't give them much time, and it doesn't add credibility to the process.

How very British

Back in the 1960's and 70's, the British government ethnically cleansed the island of Diego Garcia to make way for a US military base. Its inhabitants, the Chagossians, were forcibly deported from their homes and dumped in a slum in Mauritius. Stripped of their citizenship, they've been fighting to get their islands back ever since.

After losing a few court battles, the British government's latest move was to turn the entire area into a vast marine reserve, in which people - other than US military personnel and their rendered prisoners, of course - would be forbidden to live. Naturally, this was challenged in court. Unfortunately, the government won.

[Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory] Roberts denied under cross-examination at the high court that the marine park was created for the "improper purpose" of keeping the Chagossians out as the US wanted, and said it was for environmental and conservation purposes.

On Tuesday the judges accepted his evidence. Richards said "a truly remarkable set of circumstances" would have to have existed for the case on improper purpose to be right, involving a long-term decision "somewhere deep in government" to frustrate Chagossian ambitions by promoting the MPA.

"Those circumstances would provide an unconvincing plot for a novel. They cannot found a finding for the claimant on this issue," Richards ruled.


That of course is exactly what did happen. But it would apparently be impolite to recognise that, so the court clings to the legal fiction that it did not happen. Incapable of admitting the truth, they are thus incapable of providing justice to those it has wronged.

There will inevitably be an appeal. The question is whether the British courts can recognise the substantive case and provide justice, or whether they will ignore it because of what is essentially a code of politeness between criminals.

Drawn

A ballot for a Members bill was held today and the following bill was drawn:

  • Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Amendment Bill (Jami-Lee Ross)
The full text of the bill is here. Despite the innocuous title, the bill allows employers to use scabs to break strikes. When that was last permitted, back in the C19th and early C20th, it led to widespread industrial violence (as people naturally don't like having their jobs stolen by a scab). But like the Bourbons, it seems the reactionary National Party have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and are hellbent on dragging us back to the horrors of the past.

Climate change: Fixing the ETS

The government's headline policy for combating climate change is the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). But the ETS is broken. An idea which in theory is supposed to make polluters pay for their emissions has been perverted in practice into one where we pay polluters to pollute more. This doesn't just make it ineffective - it also burdens future New Zealand governments with the enormous costs of subsidising polluting for decades to come.

If we actually want to do anything about this problem, then the ETS will have to be changed. The Greens have put a few markers in the ground with a members bill on the subject, the Climate Change Response (National Emissions Reduction) Amendment Bill. The bill would immediately end free allocation of credits, bring agriculture into the scheme, phase out the two-for-one deal over three years, repeal the $25/ton price cap and introduce a $30/ton price floor. In the longer term, it would establish a pathway to an 88% emissions reduction by 2050 with 5-yearly targets, and require the Prime Minister to report on progress in meeting them.

The bill is a bit rough. While seeking to end free allocations, it does not actually repeal the relevant sections. It is vague on what will need to be done to make the price floor an enforceable reality. And the independent Climate Change Commission seems to lack any real purpose, other than checking and reporting on corporate claims that price increases are due to carbon costs (something I don't think justifies the creation of a new Crown Entity). But its core provisions are the guts of any real solution to the problem. Its thus an important sign of the direction we can expect policy to take under any future Labour-Green government. Polluters beware - your free ride is going to end.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013



Submission

Below is my draft submission on the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill. Submissions are due tomorrow (details here), so if you want to send in one of your own, be quick about it.

  1. I oppose the bulk of the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill. I specifically oppose the expansion of GCSB powers in part 1 of the bill. I cautious support the amendments to other acts in parts 2 and 3 of the bill. Finally, the bill is an excellent opportunity to improve the transparency of intelligence oversight in New Zealand by bringing the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Intelligence and Security Committee under the coverage of the Official Information Act 1982.

    Amendments to the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003

  2. I oppose the amendments to the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003 in the bill and ask that they not be passed.

  3. The primary effect of the amendments to the GCSB Act in the bill is to broaden the powers of the GCSB and allow it to spy on New Zealanders. This is unjustified and a threat to democratic freedoms.

  4. The supposed justification for these amendments is that the law is "unclear". This is incorrect. Section 14 of the Act is crystal clear: the GCSB is barred from intercepting the communications of New Zealanders. And as the Hansard of the debates when the Act was passed makes clear, that was the clear intent of the government and of the House. The fact that the GCSB has ignored the law is not a good reason to change it.

  5. The revised interception powers in section 14 of the bill apply not just to foreign intelligence-gathering, but also to information assurance and cyber-security. The justification for the latter is weak. According to the bill's Regulatory Impact Statement, they are required in order to prevent cyber-crime (identified as "cyber-borne frauds and scams") in order to "allow the GCSB to see who (namely New Zealand individuals and companies) is being attacked". This is a disproportionate response, akin to the police sticking hidden cameras inside everyone's house in order to detect burglars.

  6. The new interception powers are broader than the existing ones, applying not just to specific persons or places, but to classes of persons or places. As written, they would allow GCSB to obtain a warrant applying to "all members of Greenpeace", or to all ISP email servers.

  7. Recent revelations from the USA about widespread surveillance by their National Security Agency on domestic telephone metadata and on internet user data in cooperation with major internet companies such as Apple and Google invites suspicion that the GCSB could engage in similar behaviour. Under the bill, this would be completely legal. Given the level of secrecy involved, the best way to prevent such suspicions is not to grant the powers in the first place.

  8. Finally, I am concerned about the new objective of the bureau in section 6 of the bill, which includes "the economic well-being of New Zealand". In an environment where the government denounces critics of its policies as being guilty of "economic sabotage", extending the GCSB's ambit to encompass economic security while giving it domestic spying powers invites suspicion, and can only have a chilling effect on political discourse.

  9. Government surveillance, or the potential for government surveillance, has a chilling effect on political expression and a corrosive effect on social relationships between citizens. It must be kept to an absolute minimum if we are to remain a free and democratic society. No justification has been provided for these powers, and therefore they should not be granted.

    Amendments to other Acts

  10. I support the amendments to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1996 and Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996 and ask that they be passed.

  11. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security has a significant credibility problem and is widely viewed as a toothless rubberstamp. While I do not believe the changes in this bill will lead to much improvement, they have the potential to do so, and so I support them.

  12. The changes to the Intelligence and Security Committee are mostly housekeeping but could slightly strengthen the committee. However real change will only come from the committee members taking a robust and proactive view of their role in overseeing New Zealand's intelligence agencies.

    Increasing transparency

  13. I also ask that while Parliament is revisiting the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1996 and Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996, it add both the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Intelligence and Security Committee to Schedule 1 of the Official Information Act 1982.

  14. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security performs a watchdog function over the SIS and GCSB. While they report annually to Parliament, these reports have been difficult to obtain, and there is little real information available about their work. Public confidence in their role would be improved by more openness.

  15. The Committee is a government body, but it operates totally in secret. Confidence in its work (and hence in the New Zealand intelligence community as a whole) would be increased if the public were able to learn such basic facts as how often it met and whether it considered any matters beyond the annual reports of intelligence agencies (that is, whether it was providing robust and proactive oversight) without having to depend on the grace and favour of the Prime Minister.

  16. The agencies the Inspector-General and Committee are responsible for - the SIS and GCSB - are both themselves subject to the OIA. The OIA contains a conclusive withholding ground for information likely to the security and defence or foreign relations of New Zealand, and this is sufficient to protect any such information either may handle.

  17. I do not wish to appear before the committee.

Labour's hypocrisy on SkyCity

Labour has been making a lot of noise about opposing John Key's crony-casino deal with Sky City. But they're happy to take SkyCity's hospitality:

Labour has cried foul over the deal offered to SkyCity in return for building an international convention centre. But this didn't stop MPs Clayton Cosgrove and Kris Faafoi accepting an invitation to watch the All Blacks beat France from the comfort of the SkyCity corporate box at Eden Park on Saturday.

But it gets worse - David Shearer was also sucking at the corporate teat.

This is utterly hypocritical. What next? They'll be taking SkyCity's dirty gambling money as well? Labour needs to stop playing us for chumps, and walk its talk. Until it does, it shouldn't expect any votes from people who value honesty and integrity.

Member's day

After being delayed by the interminable budget debate, today is finally a Member's Day. Unfortunately there's not much exciting going on. First up there are a pair of reports of the Privileges Committee on protecting their apparat from defamation action and protecting themselves from the GCSB. The latter in particular promises to be a wonderful exercise in hypocroisy, given that they want the GCSB to be able to spy on everybody else. After that there's a boring local bill to dispose of, before they get down to the actual member's bills. But even on that front it looks rather dull - the committee stage of Todd McClay Mark Mitchell's petty Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill and the rest of the first reading of Sue Moroney's doomed Employment Relations (Statutory Minimum Redundancy Entitlements) Amendment Bill. If the House moves quickly, they might get on to Labour's Electricity (Renewable Preference) Amendment Bill (still down as belonging to Charles Chauvel on legislation.govt.nz, but now fronted by Moana Mackey). If they get that far, we'll have a ballot for one bill tomorrow morning.

More homophobia in Russia

Russia has progressed a law making it illegal to express support for gay rights:

Gay activists were attacked and then arrested outside Russia’s parliament as lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill that will ban “gay propaganda” aimed at under-18s. The Duma passed the bill, which outlaws the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, by 436 votes to zero, with one abstention.

The bill will now become law if it is approved by Russia’s upper house of parliament and then signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has already expressed his support for it. The bill is the most criticised element of a series of measures that activists say makes a difficult situation for gay people in Russia even worse. Individuals who violate the law can be fined up to £100, while the penalty for organisations can be up to £20,000. Foreigners found to be promoting gay equality in violation of the law will be arrested and immediately deported.


So what's "propaganda"?
[S]preading information aimed at forming non- traditional sexual behaviour among children, suggesting this behaviour is attractive and making a false statement about the socially equal nature of traditional and non-traditional relationships

Or in other words saying that gays are equal human beings whose relationships are equally worthy of respect and recognition.

Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and is supposed to respect equality. But clearly, that means about as much as the US Constitution these days.