The spectre of Big Brother

There cannot be many people in New Zealand not concerned over this week's revelations of illegal spying by the Government Communications and Security Bureau.

There cannot be many not worried about the Government's subsequent announcement it will make sweeping changes to laws governing that agency which will change its mandate and make it legal to spy on New Zealanders.

There cannot be many not concerned those changes may therefore legitimise the agency's previous actions and sweep its mistakes under the carpet, despite Inspector-general of Intelligence and Security Paul Neazor being tasked with investigating the legalities of the 88 new cases.

And there cannot be many who do not find irony in Prime Minister John Key's comments that ''it is absolutely critical the GCSB has a clear legal framework to operate within'' and the law changes would ''remedy the inadequacies of the GCSB Act'', given any inadequacies or failures surely came from him, bureau directors or bureau staff either misunderstanding or ignoring the current legal framework.

The latest concerns over illegal spying were revealed in a report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge from her review of the GCSB in the wake of the Kim Dotcom debacle. A police raid on the German internet entrepreneur, who is wanted in the United States on copyright piracy and racketeering charges, was carried out in January last year but it was subsequently revealed the raid was based on unlawful monitoring of him and an associate - both permanent residents - by the GCSB, which is forbidden to spy on New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.

It was revealed there had been confusion between police and the spy agency about Mr Dotcom's immigration status, given changes to the Immigration Act and its effect on GCSB legislation, which Mr Key described in September last year as ''a very complex issue'', although his status was widely known, as a year before that Mr Dotcom had organised a massive fireworks display in Auckland to celebrate his residency.

The new revelations in this week's report found the bureau may have acted illegally 88 times since 2003 in its surveillance of communications of New Zealanders for the SIS and police.

Apparently, staff believed they could conduct such surveillance if they had police warrants. And, apparently, the prime minister had been briefed on the potential illegal surveillance of New Zealanders as far back as July last year, despite him saying he knew nothing about the issue until September.

At that time, following the Kim Dotcom revelations, Mr Key said he was ''appalled'' at the agency, which had ''failed at the most basic of hurdles''.

''It is the GCSB's responsibility to act within the law, and it is hugely disappointing that in this case its actions fell outside the law. I am personally very disappointed that the agency failed to fully understand the workings of its own legislation,'' he said.

He also apologised to Mr Dotcom and all New Zealanders.

His response to the revelations of the new breaches - to change the law rather than ensure the Government and its spy agencies understand and adhere to the law - is a turnaround in attitude, deflects responsibility and is hugely concerning.

Since the Kim Dotcom debacle, there have been ongoing calls by the Opposition for a parliamentary inquiry into the GCSB and the new revelations have spurred further calls for a thorough independent review of both spy agencies. Certainly, there seems much to answer for, which is why changing the law before a proper investigation of process has been carried out would be a gross abuse of power - and could have a gross impact on the average New Zealander.

Security and related legislation may indeed be complex - indeed it should be. It provides privacy, legal and civil liberty safeguards for all New Zealanders. Mr Key should consider whether a better attempt to understand the current legislation by some of the top players in the country - himself, spy agency directors and staff and police heads and personnel - might be more appropriate than taking away the civil liberties of all average New Zealanders before the spectre of Big Brother looms any larger.

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