U.S. becoming a surveillance state – and New Zealand should be concerned

Kia Ora

In the nearly 12 years since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93, there has been an understandable debate about how far to go in trying to strike a balance between civil/human liberties and national security. On that brilliantly clear blue sky day the views of Americans about national security was most probably irreversibly changed in ways that even a few years earlier were probably unthinkable. The United States Government not surprisingly stepped up its intelligence efforts. Under the Department of Homeland Security, along with older established agencies such as the National Security Agency, electronic and physical surveillance was stepped up, at the border (the physical border, airports, ports). Passports with biometric data were introduced. The fear of further attacks drove Americans to take a hard look at their neighbours, and at their communities and who in them might pose a risk. People became more vigilant carrying out every day routines such as going for a ride on the subways of New York and customs were given greater screening powers.  But is this massive surveillance programme helping America?

It depends on whom one talks to. If one talks to civil libertarians about the surveillance of Americans by U.S. Government agencies recurring themes of whether or not it is constitutional, or properly in line with how the founding fathers viewed the United States, keep cropping up. Certainly the Green Party of the United States and the Libertarian Party think that a major wrong is being committed. To a lesser extent a few Republicans of the Rand/Ron Paul variety and some Democrats appear to agree, though not in such large numbers as to force any significant change. The cause of this concern is that millions of Americans are being subject to surveillance by a National Security Agency operation called P.R.I.S.M.

As the concept of P.R.I.S.M. is quite new to the media, the literature on it is still in its infancy. However, this is just one aspect of a long term trend in the United States towards a surveillance state sanctioned by the United States Government with the knowledge and support of both the Republican and Democrat parties. It replaced the Terrorist Surveillance Program which the administration of President George W. Bush implemented as a result of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the United States Government was reported in 2005 by the New York Times of conducting a well known campaign of wire tapping the electronic communications of American civilians inside and outside of the United States to find evidence of links to terrorist groups.

It is not just P.R.I.S.M. though that is causing concern, but also the exponential rise in the use of pilotless drones in the United States to gather intelligence. Nearly silent, able to cover vast distances while supplying a live data stream back to a central control point, drones have revolutionised warfare by permitting strikes to carried out from the air without requiring manned planes to fly to the target. In the United States itself they have also become very popular with authorities who are struggling with the day to day demands of law enforcement and rely on a data stream to tell them where crime appears to be occurring live so they can send units to deal with it.
The use of drones is not surprising and it has been considered in New Zealand as well. However many questions that no politicians in the United States – or here – seem to be interested in answering are how to deal with the potential privacy intrusions that go with a pilotless drone overhead. Such as:

  1. What can the drone see?
  2. What happens to the data after it has been received from the drone and sent to the relevant authorities?
  3. Who is responsible for the operation of the drones?
  4. What steps will be taken to protect the privacy of businesses and human beings from drone activity?
  5. Who will take those steps? In New Zealand would that be the Minister of Justice, the Minister responsible for the S.I.S. or someone else

Given the recent problems with the Government Communications Security Bureau, there is significant cause to be concerned about the direction that New Zealand is going in with regards to privacy and security. Given our increasingly complex and intricate relations with the United States and the agreements we have regarding sharing information, New Zealanders should be concerned at what safeguards are built in to protect New Zealand and New Zealanders. The United States might be our friend, but we have to know where to draw the line in the interests of ordinary New Zealanders.

Take Care,


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