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Before the forum began, I remarked to my neighbour, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many spies!” This was as I realised the calibre of the room’s occupants in the Grand Space at the Rydges Hotel.  The Rotary Forum, in conjunction with Victoria University, attracted an array of students and professionals, all with a common interest, the Privacy Security Dilemma.

The Forum focused on the balance of civil liberties and national security, some positing that neither can be maximised without compromising the other.

Here are some of the key moments I identified from each of the speakers:

  • Sir Michael Cullen:
    • “Security is a part of liberty and the two concepts are not mutually exclusive, though their dynamics differ depending on the presence or absence of existential threats.”
    • He called for openness and greater collaboration as means to clarify the intent of the security agencies in New Zealand. Noting, the protection of freedom can subsequently diminish freedom.
    • “Shit happens! But it’s what happens after the shit happens that really matters.”
  • Russell Stanners:
    • The ease and accessibility of cyber crime implicates us all thus Russell stressed the necessity of staunch security measures to prevent the additional 70% of spam emails permeating our firewalls and flooding our inboxes.
    • “The internet does not discriminate due to location, thus cyber threats apply to New Zealanders as much as anyone else.”
  • Dr Paul Buchanan:
    • He covered three topics; informed consent and the methods of bulk collection, mass surveillance and target espionage.
    • He acknowledged that all three methods violated privacy and concern for civil liberties and called for us to be informed, question the fine print and avoid giving tacit consent.
  • Professor Robert Ayson:
    • He agreed that Privacy and Security are in competition with each other, but suggested that finding equilibrium is possible and that the balance between trade-offs is dynamic and ever changing due to perceived dangers and threats.
    • “Security is important but liberties shouldn’t be too (Another word here) compromised.”
  • Peter Devoy:
    • Focussed on the physical side of security, our boarders. Questioning, does an infringement on civil liberties for suspected people justify the security of the greater collective?
    • He urged the necessity to discern whom we let into our country to ensure the protection and well being of our citizens and mentioned the new innovation ‘IDme’, a biometric analysis program, as a potential component to help this process in the future.
    • Peter concluded that though we are no longer anonymous when we engage in travel, this knowledge helps us as it acts to increase security for the intrepid traveller’s movements.
  • Karen Coutts:
    • Spoke on matters of Maori sovereignty. She focussed on the importance of the individual belonging to a collective and the preservation of integrity of the collective for perpetuity.
    • She spoke of the need for a mutual respect between those supplying the data and those reporting it.
  • Anjum Rahman:
    • Shared with us the importance of social cohesion to mitigate potential security threats. She warned that the alienation of minorities promotes insecurity which can precipitate violence and social unrest, alienation largely caused by misperception and misunderstanding.
    • Anjum touched on Islamophobia as a driver of societal insecurity and called for the necessity of cohesion and ‘oneness’ and for a resolve in institutional based problems.
  • Professor Miriam Lips:
    • She brought the debate back to the cyber world. In a world rapidly changing technologically, anonymity disappears and privacy is compromised.
    • Miriam places the onus on the individual to effectively manage their online privacy as currently, 75% of people do not read or understand privacy agreements. She concluded that a misconception of self-governance determines use of the online.
  • Thomas Beagle:
    • He redirected the debate from issues around privacy and security to the struggle between power and security.
    • He posited that the power of the surveyor over the surveyed is used to manipulate their behaviour, as he suggested that people act differently when they know they are being watched and that spy agencies are a platform to project power not protect the individual.
  • John Edwards:
    • He suggested that privacy and security are a false dichotomy. Contrary to some of the previous speakers, he suggested that the two could coexist, as we are entitled to safety from the government, which is actually complimentary to our privacy.
    • John stressed the necessity of a clear legal authority and increased transparency and accountability, as ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’.

The forum closed with the Honourable Chris Finlayson, our Minister responsible for the SIS and the GCSB. After his respective domain had come under constant scrutiny by the previous speakers, Hon. Chris reinforced that national security and privacy are actually complimentary, however that the true dilemma fell with transparency. He admitted that it is the nature of government spy agencies to ‘work within the shadows’, however, transparency can still be achieved without compromising operational effectiveness through accountability and constant reform. He questioned of the captivated audience, “who watches the watchman” to which he stressed the need for oversight and high levels of scrutiny to ensure that civil privacy is not compromised by excessive security through intelligence.

In reflection, I could not say what argument is more compelling, whether Privacy and security compliment, or oppose each other. But the light shed on an issue in the shadows provided much food for thought.

The forum brought to light a topic that should be common in social discourses. The forum asked the question: what do we truly value? The ability to have freedom and social liberties, or the protective harm provided by our faithful state? I guess the answer is up to the individual.

A room full of spies

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