Megaupload/Dotcom case gets even weirder as NZ PM calls for inquiry into use of NZ security services and wiretaps

Overnight, a freaky press release that, if it wasn't hosted on the official government website (named after the 'Beehive' government building in Wellington) I would have immediately dismissed as fake:Prime Minister John Key today announced he has...

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Overnight, a freaky press release that, if it wasn't hosted on the official government website (named after the 'Beehive' government building in Wellington) I would have immediately dismissed as fake:

Prime Minister John Key today announced he has requested an inquiry by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security into the circumstances of unlawful interception of communications of certain individuals by the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Mr Key says the Crown has filed a memorandum in the High Court in the Megaupload case advising the Court and affected parties that the GCSB had acted unlawfully while assisting the Police to locate certain individuals subject to arrest warrants issued in the case. The Bureau had acquired communications in some instances without statutory authority.

Unlawful interception of communications is British government-speak for wiretap and GCSB is the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau, an intelligence agency with similar remit to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK.

Now stop for a minute and remember the alleged crime that Dotcom & Co is accused of: copyright infringement.

Something that would normally be considered a civil matter has somehow involved the secret intelligence service.

Proportionality

This development is incredibly worrying for two reasons.  Firstly, many of us accept that some arms of government need highly intrusive powers. Such powers are essential in keeping us safe; safe from terrorism and foreign attacks.

The reason we limit such powers and don't e.g. use them for everyday domestic policing is because these powers are open to abuse and we therefore have to draw a line in how they are used; and limit the number and size of organisations allowed to use them.

It's hard for democracy to survive if the government reads all our email and taps all our phones - even though this might reduce all instances of online copyright infringement to near zero.

So when we look at limiting such powers we talk in terms of proportionality.  Do the benefits outweigh the risks?  Are such intrusive powers really necessary? Are robust safeguards in place? Do such powers contribute significantly to national security? And are there other less-intrusive methods of policing?

Thawing of US/NZ relations

The fact New Zealand authorities apparently kowtowed to US requests in this case are also interesting given the sometimes-stormy history of US/NZ relations.  

In 1984 the New Zealand government famously barred all nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from its waters causing an inevitable rift with the US, which banned all NZ ships from its ports in retaliation; a ban which survived almost three decades - until just last Friday!

Given the thawing of relations it's entirely possible that NZ security services became a little over-zealous in appeasing the US authorities.

But, secondly, I still ask the question could this happen here, in the UK?  Or indeed is it already happening, after the Serious and Organised Crime Agency's intervention to close UK music website RnBExclusive.

Mission creep: copyright protection = cyber-security = national security

Earlier this year I attended a rather exclusive cyber-security conference in Belfast where a senior Home Office official rather proudly proclaimed the RnBExclusive take-down as evidence of government action against cyber threats.

He said this with a straight face, to a room of computer security experts. 

Cyber security is tied to national security, as is our fiscal security; and therefore at least in the views of Home Office mandarins, our ability to protect electronic goods against counter-fitting is clearly in the interests of national security.

Of course this is mission creep in the highest order, but there are other worrying indicators.  

After the UK trial of Anton Vickerman - a private criminal prosecution brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) against the owner of Surfethechannel.com - Vickerman made allegations that FACT had asked a police officer seconded to the Federation to get a police tap on Vickerman's internet connection.  

There's no indication this request was ever carried out, and only Vickerman's rant at the start of a four year prison sentence to document the request was even made.  

But there is mounting evidence that organisations and people in positions of responsibility believe it is necessary and proportionate to use wiretaps and other intrusive measures to tackle copyright infringement.

And this in itself is worrying, as these very same organisations have a history of pushing governments worldwide for the laws they want - and getting them.

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