Electronic rights being trampled

Drawing parallels between technological tools and those in the real world - between the internet and a "highway", a website and a newspaper, or a computer and a building - is a doubtful exercise

Drawing parallels between technological tools and those in the real world — between the internet and a “highway”, a website and a newspaper, or a computer and a building — is a doubtful exercise. Sometimes the analogy will illuminate, sometimes it will confuse. Often it reflects how badly computer users are treated by comparison.

Several such comparisons were tossed across the floor of Parliament in the final stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

Giving law enforcement agencies the right to demand passwords and encryption keys to access digital records of a possible crime, even to the extent of having to give up self-incriminating information, is really no more remarkable than the requirement to open the door of one’s house or workplace to a police officer armed with a warrant, argued Justice Minister Phil Goff.

Puzzlingly, though, while inspectors chasing alleged crime need to identify themselves on entering a physical public place, no equivalent identifier is demanded in a public piece of “cyberspace”, under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act section 106(3). The analogy collapses.

Paul Brislen’s comparison (Dial Tone) with a locked safe (even off-site) is more pertinent. If I tell an inspector that the evidence sought is in a safe deposit box, but I won’t tell where the box or the key is, pleading self-incrimination, I’m apparently still within my rights. Government agents looking for evidence seem unduly concerned with computers.

Turning to media, New Zealand’s ISPs have escaped for now the fate of the “Taimi o Tonga” — being regulated by government licence.

The fuss in New Zealand’s mainstream media about the human rights threat posed by newspaper regulation in a feudal kingdom contrasts with the complete lack of attention to a disturbingly similar proposal at home. Perhaps the conventional media don’t see the internet as a credible news channel — or maybe they’d rather it didn’t become one.

With instant messaging and blogs, mainstream IT is moving into environments hitherto favoured by the anarchic communities of the old-style internet, the “smart mobs”. It would be well advised to look over its shoulder at who has legal access to such channels.

Civil liberties champions came out in force when government dared suggest confiscating the vehicles of “boy racers”, but arouse suspicions of a misdeed on the “electronic highway” and your computer and any PC on the premises, even for purposes of repair, is fair game for confiscation.

Surely forensic examination of a car yields evidence of dangerous driving just as examination of a computer does illict use? Why the fuss about impounding the car? Is the motoring lobby more powerful than IT?

Phil Goff also claimed last week to “target child porn” — portrayed almost entirely as an internet problem — by promising maximum 10-year prison sentences for even the mildest categories of “objectionable” material, which would include a document illustrating how to grow marijuana. The maximum sentence for disseminating such information will be longer than for actually growing the stuff.

A highway parallel might go like this: “We must bring down the road toll, so let’s have 10-year sentences for dangerous driving causing injury. And while we’re about it, let’s make 10 years available for having a dud rear light or parking on an expired meter.”

In comparison with newspaper publishers, motorists and their respective organisations, computer people seem a soft target.

Get out with your banners, letters to MPs and submissions before the march of law and regulation seriously affects your business. Maybe it’s already too late.

Bell in Computerworld's Wellington reporter.

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