Our regular series of Technology & Privacy Forums have been run by this Office for over a decade. The Forums have featured a diversity of voices discussing issues involving technological changes and how they intersect with the protection of people’s personal information.
The protestors who disrupted last week’s forum where the Acting Director of the GCSB was speaking would like to see New Zealand’s security and intelligence services closed down. Fair enough. That is a reasonable position to take in an environment when a “first principles” review is taking place.
Every agency should have to justify its existence, and every Government should be able to make the case for all its policies and activities. It might be that the activities undertaken by the GCSB and SIS could be absorbed into other agencies, with different rules and accountabilities, or the Government could choose not to prioritise some of the activities of those agencies.
The protestors say the GCSB has no ‘democratic mandate’. The GCSB is a government department. It is established under a law that was debated in Parliament. It has as much democratic mandate as any department of state.
It is a perfectly legitimate act to lobby for the abolition of a government department or organisation, as some have for the Ministry for Women, the Families Commission and others over time. But to say (as the group does) that my office ‘legitimises the activities of the Bureau’ elevates my Office’s powers beyond its remit and jurisdiction.
I can no more ‘legitimise’, or ‘delegitimise’ the GCSB than I can the Inland Revenue Department or the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. The GCSB is part of the public service landscape, and unless Parliament decides to do away with it I, and the rest of New Zealand, am stuck with it.
In my submission to the current review of intelligence and security, I argued that my office should have a greater role in the oversight of intelligence and security agencies, and for a number of other reforms. But until there is a change of the law, I have limited avenues for influence.
I am unable to hold the Bureau to account for the kinds of activities the protestors object to. That is the role of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. She is already undertaking inquiries into some of the matters raised by the protestors and others.
In the meantime, I have made it a priority to devote resources of my Office to a number of initiatives aimed at addressing public concerns about the activities of such agencies where those fall within my sphere. We posted about some of those last week.
One of the biggest obstacles to an informed and mature conversation about the role and activities of the intelligence agencies, and the nature of the ‘social contract’ under which they operate, is the absence of good information about those activities. Speculation is not a sound basis for a public discussion.
A secure online infrastructure is essential for privacy and for our economy. This is one area where the GCSB carries out an essential role and I am pleased to be able to provide a platform for that conversation to occur.