Late last month Phil Goff spoke to the United Nations general assembly in New York. He spoke, as politicians are wont to do these days, about terrorism and how we, the free nations of the world, must work together to stop terrorists wherever they may emerge.
One paragraph from his speech stuck in my mind:
“In combating terrorism, however, we should avoid undermining the very values we are seeking to uphold. The fight against terrorism should not become an excuse to justify actions that do not conform to international standards of humanity.”
You’ve got that right, Phil. The fight against terrorism should not be an excuse for limiting an individual’s freedom. If we do that, we’re helping the terrorist achieve his or her goal. I don’t want to change my lifestyle because of terrorist threats. That would be an admission of defeat, in my opinion.
But it’s not that simple, is it? Earlier this month Goff spoke in Parliament about the counter-terrorism bill he was introducing for its second reading.
Here’s what he said this time round: “[The bill] establishes a requirement to assist computer access in the course of a warranted police search, by providing reasonable and necessary access information such as the computer password.”)
If you own or operate a computer of any kind, your right not to incriminate yourself has been removed.
Here’s how it used to be: the police turn up with a warrant to search your home. You stand to one side and say “Knock yourselves out, coppers” and they go through your house. If they find what they’re looking for, good on them. If they don’t, tough. You aren’t required by law to help them search, you’re not required by law to assist them in any way other than letting them in through the front door.
Once this bill is passed, however, the security services will be able to point to your PC, laptop, handheld, server and possibly even your cellphone (why not? It’s got a chip in it) and say “Aha! You will assist us in accessing this device or face three months in jail”. If they’ve got a warrant I’m happy to hand over the PC, I’m happy to switch it on for them and I’m happy to let them look around. Why is it that now I’m supposed to help them understand just what it is that’s on the PC? I don’t have to show them the hidey-hole under my floorboards or give them the combination to my wall safe; why are computers different?
Here’s an example to show how wrong this law is: you and I have a falling out, so I send you dozens of encrypted files (they can be anything — my shopping list if I like). You look at them and can’t open them so you delete them. Meanwhile, I’ve dobbed you in to the local cop shop as being a terrorist/paedophile/encrypter of data. You get a visit from the constabulary who find them on your hard drive and demand you decrypt the files. Of course you can’t, so you’re nicked.
This law won’t be applied to just terrorist activities; it will be applied to all criminal laws. If you own or operate a PC the terrorists have just scored a tremendous victory over your way of life.