Surveillance By Default: There's A Lot of Information on Everyone Out There


Earlier this year a New Zealand police officer said that 'the police have a lot of information on everyone'. He said it matter-of-factly whilst giving evidence in a court-case.

A brief round of laughter rippled through the court in response to his statement, but the fact is he was not joking and he was not exaggerating. There is a lot of information about everyone held in various places – available to not only the police and other government agencies but also private companies.

It may be that private companies hold even more information than the police do. Every day as we go about our daily business, the majority of us unwittingly give out a lot of personal information. It seems like we have to give more personal information out about ourselves when buying a ticket through Ticketek for a football game, than what we used to have to give out to get a passport. And that is done unquestioningly.

We can even give information unwittingly. A person recently bought a Snapper card with an Eft-pos – no information was given in the transact, just one swipe of the card; one week later an email arrived offering the new Snapper card holder discounts. We leave traceable electronic footprints everywhere.

Many of us also share stories and personal information on Facebook that we would never swap with a stranger on a bus. People publish photos of their children, lovers and partners for all to see, giving personal details about family life and habits.

We joke about Google, Facebook and Twitter keeping tabs on us, but it runs much deeper than that. Surveillance is becoming increasingly overt and commonplace by default. The concept of privacy is disappearing.

But when we try to talk about it, it sounds like paranoia.

State surveillance and other spies

To have our daily actions recorded and noted is nothing new. We are already aware that a significant amount of covert spying occurs by the police and other state security agencies.

In recent history, US agents came to Wellington in 1973 to train police in surveillance tactics of both 'criminals and terrorists'. In the mid-1970s New Zealand police officially began an undercover police-officer programme. One of the first officers, Andy Bell, published his autobiography in 2007 (Adrenalin Rush). In it he talks about one of his jobs being to infiltrate the Wellington Resistance Bookshop and HART. He formed relationships to get into a position of power within the Wellington activist community.

Another police officer, Tom Lewis, also talks about surveillance in his autobiography (Cover-ups and Cop-outs, 1998). In the 1970s and '80s, as a CIS officer (Criminal Intelligence Service), Lewis had to 'work in close liaison with the SIS.’ In preparation for royal tours the CIS had ‘to update dossiers on radicals, anti-monarchists and extremists.’ In the book, Lewis says that, ‘the compiling of dossiers on people became ridiculous…. they were kept on people because they belonged to groups or organisations not because of anything they had done. It became difficult to distinguish between dissenters and criminals….’. Lewis also admits that Dunedin CIS officers used to pretend to be 'radicals' and made bogus threats in order to get more funding to continue surveillance.

It was also in the 1980s that then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon released an SIS list of allegedly radical and subversive people involved in the 1981 Springbok Tour protest organisations. The SIS must have been doing some surveillance to name those people, even if they did have incorrect facts.

There has been other coverage over the years of SIS spying on groups and people, or asking others to spy on their behalf. But there was a lot of media coverage following the SIS's brief period of 'glasnost' in the mid-2000s. In 2006 Warren Tucker became the new director of the SIS and announced a more open policy. People were able to apply for their SIS files, and if they were no longer a 'security threat' or under active surveillance, their file was released.

What became public was the amount of spying and gathering of information the SIS appeared to do on anyone slightly involved with the 'left'. Some of the more notable files brought to light were that of Maire Leadbetter and her brother Keith Locke. The spying on both began before they were even teenagers – they were children of activists. Other more minor files included one on a woman who happened to buy a communist magazine twice.

The period of glasnost did not last long, and by 2009 more and more people were denied their files. The SIS seems to have sunken back into its closed-door policy.

Other than the spying done by the police and SIS, spying by private companies also received some media coverage in the late 2000s.

It was news in 2007 when it was confirmed that Solid Energy had employed a private security company to help them in their 'security'. Christchurch man, Ryan Paterson-Rouse, had been employed by Thompson and Clark to spy on the 'Save Happy Valley Coalition'. Another person employed by the same security company was law student Somali Young – her job was to report on various Wellington groups.

Other spying that was considered newsworthy, was the unmasking of Rob Gilchrist in 2008. He was employed by police for more than a decade to spy on both individuals and community groups. Among the groups he spied on were the Green Party, unions and student associations.

Rob Gilchrist was also mentioned during the trial of the so-called 'Urewera 4', the only four people who ultimately ended up in court as a result of police Operation 8. It was during that court case that the police officer said police here 'have a lot of information on everyone'.

Surveillance was an issue in the police raids of October 15th 2007.

During the trial it became clear how much private information police had collected on individuals by using data readily available to the police from bank accounts, cell phone accounts, 'Trade Me' records and computer logs.

Surveillance normalised

It was a reminder that eft-pos purchases, credit card swipes, cheques written, internet sites visited, emails sent and received, chats on the computer, comments written on the net, SMS texts sent and received, phone numbers dialled and received – all are recorded and can be accessible to security agencies.

But there is other private data readily available out there too. Shopping cards, such as Fly Buy, Foodtown and Farmers, retain information about people – where they shop, what they buy. Library cards also hold a lot of information about people.

Cameras placed inside and outside shops also video us. But for the most part, we are immune to the numerous CCTV cameras up and down the country that record our movements and other details, such as what we are wearing, with whom we are talking. Many people don't give a second thought to the use of automatic number plate recognition technology on the Northern Motorway, and there was not much of an outcry when it became known that they were also in use on the Auckland motorway system.

Surveillance is becoming normalised and acceptable. What once existed in only science-fiction such as 'Minority Report' or George Orwell's '1984' is now becoming a reality.

Even a billboard can be taking note of you. Electronic billboards can track people. Using facial recognition programmes to scan passer-bys for age, gender and ethnicity, this data is then used to make conclusions about shopping habits and the billboard can change adverts to reflect the 'needs' of the majority of people on the streets.

Westfield, New Zealand's largest shopping mall chain, announced on 14th March this year, that they are investing $1.4billion in electronically tracking shoppers in their malls. Just within the last week there was an article in the Dominion Post about 'smart shop dummies' also being created to track customers in stores.

But people will not only be tracked by bill-boards. As RFID chips become increasingly common, billboards are being adapted to be able to scan for them. This means billboards reading all the smart devices you happen to have on your person. You walk past and your smart credit card, cell phone, passport, and anything else you have with an RFID chip, are all automatically scanned. All that information is retained in some computer file somewhere.

A US ski-field using RFID technology excitedly proclaimed this year, that from each individual they “have a treasure trove of addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, along with skier habits.”

Drones are also becoming more common. They were used in the 2012 London Olympics and have been trialled already by some English police stations. Within the next few decades they are meant to become common place. Drones will ostensibly be used for such benign things as finding lost trampers, crop and farm monitoring, and shipping and road surveillance. By 2015 the US want them to also be a normal part of life. Drones are already made in New Zealand.

In Europe Project Indect is steadily becoming more of a reality. Indect aims to 'comprehensively monitor urban areas' through integrated CCTV video surveillance, drones and monitoring of phones and computers. The idea is to have constant surveillance of public areas which means 'illegal' and potentially 'criminal' behaviour can be detected and stopped before it happens. Pre-emptive policing can occur and people be detained and questioned on the basis of data from a computer programme which labels their behaviour as suspicious.

Britain is introducing legislation to allow the British intelligence agencies, police and other security services to monitor in real-time all email and social media.

Surveillance is now embedded in our daily lives and we are becoming increasingly oblivious to it. Privacy is becoming an out-moded quaint relic of the past.

The police officer in the Urewera 4 Trial was only partially right – yes, the police do have a lot of information about a lot of people. But combined with the data held in private hands, there is enough information out there for police to construct whatever story they want to about us.

We do have something to worry about. We should be paranoid.


Commenting has now closed on this article.

Thanks for this great article. Julian Assange's book "Cypher Punks" will be available in Christchurch libraries very soon, so I'll be writing a review of that. I watched a few episodes of his TV show earlier this year and there were two episodes which cover what you're talking about:

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