When spying on everyone is not a widespread issue

Mbie-contractors-2018-12-18

Oh dear, it turns out various government agencies have been spying on us. Didn’t we know that? Why is everyone getting so upset about it? Or pretending to be upset?

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes sounded really concerned today at what his inquiry into various government departments’ use of private investigators had uncovered. “That is not consistent with how we should view democratic freedom,” he said. Really? State Services Minister Chris Hipkins was more open about it. He bemoaned the way the spying was done, not that is was done, because “that's not to say there shouldn't be any surveillance.”

To be honest, it is a bit surprising that Peter Hughes came up with anything at all. One of the agencies his inquiry was investigating, was the Ministry of Social Development and its spying on people who had been abused as children in state care and who were preparing to sue the government. The CEO of the Ministry at the time? Peter Hughes.

Jacinda Ardern and the rest of Labour are now acting as if all this is completely new and suprising to them. But the legislation that made the recording of meetings legal, the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, was originally drafted by Labour in the early 2000s. It then got put on the back burner for several years and was put to the select committee in 2010 by National. Many of us made submissions on it, warning that it would open the door to exactly what has been happening: that it would be used by the state (or by subcontracted private investigators) to spy on anyone whose opinion it didn’t like.
All perfectly legal, as long as the person recording the conversation is part of it. Search Warrants and Interception Warrants are yesterday.

And of course it was politicians of exactly the government that did all this, who back then assured us that we were paranoid. But even back then we knew it was happening. There had been spies from Thompson + Clark Investigations (TCIL) in groups like Peace Action Wellington and Save Happy Valley. For many years TCIL have been publishing a newsletter about “Extremism in NZ” for their clients. We just didn’t know that the clients included government departments.

As for consequences, we shouldn’t expect too much either. The SSC press release from today said: “The Commissioner wrote to the CE of MBIE asking her to consider the removal of TCIL from the Government procurement panel. The chief executive has removed TCIL from the panel.” Yet the MBIE web site still lists TCIL as a preferred supplier for “Consultancy Services” and as a member of the “Protective security services sub-panel”. There seems to be no urgency.

The government spying on “issue motivated groups” won’t stop. People doing stuff because they believe in a cause will always be seen as a threat in a system where everything should be properly “profit motivated”.

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