I was watching West Wing on the telly the other day and Rob Lowe's character said this generation's biggest issue would be privacy. One of the characters talked about how governments generally give themselves more power in order to protect citizens, yet it's protection from government these same citizens really need. Over the past month I myself have been targeted by the Department of Courts and I am far from being on my own in that regard. The Privacy Commissioner has sent out a stern warning to Courts about its illegal data matching activities.
Inland Revenue has taken it upon itself to demand a list of all the .nz sites from the Internet Society, which happily handed them over as it is required to do. Our faces and signatures have been digitised and stored on a database at the Land Transport Safety Authority, which has said it may data-match with the Births, Deaths and Marriages folk. And the Department of Internal Affairs may have been illegally serving warrants up by fax machine instead of in person.
Taken individually these things are mostly minor problems with procedure - I have no problem with IRD having a list of all the .nz sites in the country or with DIA hunting for paedophiles on the nation's ISPs. But put all these things together and they spell an erosion of our privacy and freedom from interference.
What's worse is our government has decided to give itself a range of new powers supposedly for our own good. The Crimes Amendment Bill (number six) has been a very long time in coming and I for one was happy to see it land on my desk. Finally, I thought, it would be an offence to steal data or trash systems. The bill would fix up those foolish loopholes that allowed someone to defraud a bank but walk away scot free because the money was transferred electronically to his account and therefore nothing was stolen. At the last minute, however, I discovered a series of amendments had been added that even the legal profession wasn't expecting.
Lawyer Averill Parkinson, a member of the Auckland District Law Society law and technology committee, who occasionally writes for Computerworld on legal aspects of technology issues, says she and colleagues were caught flat-footed by the addition of the supplementary order paper (SOP) which includes the interception aspects of the bill. In fact, as I was to discover, actually finding a copy of the SOP online was next to impossible.
Luckily, the Internet Society has put up a copy at www.isocnz.org.nzcrimes-sop.html (thanks to David Zanetti and Don Stokes for retyping the whole damned thing). It needs to be read in conjunction with the Crimes Amendment Bill itself but there's a link to the relevant bits of that on the same site.
Basically, it stinks. We desperately need to update our Crimes Act to cope with the modern world, but the government has muddied the waters almost irrevocably by including this SOP and its sweeping interception laws. While fortunately the proposed law goes before committee in May next year so we can have our say, unfortunately it's the whole bill so, for example, don't expect hacking to be made illegal any time soon. While police should have the closely monitored right to ask for a warrant to check out email, this bill goes beyond that in many respects.
Fiction is so much easier. Craig Harrison, author of The Quiet Earth, wrote a play called Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day and in it there's a great line that I can't quite remember about how societies don't become dysfunctional overnight; rather, it's a slow eroding of our way of life.
I think we're on the edge of just such a slippery slope right now.
Paul Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.