Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Auckland's disturbing panopticon

Earlier in the month, we learned that Auckland was planning to install a creepy panopticon, complete with ANPR and facial recognition, for vague and undefinied purposes. This produced a flurry of OIA requests via FYI, and one of them (for advice from the Privacy Commissioner) has come back. The picture it paints is disturbing. According to the Privacy Commissioner,

  • Auckland Transport is unclear about the purposes of the surveillance and what it will be used for;
  • want to share the cost with police, which raises the spectre that police are using AT to install a city-wide ANPR network by the backdoor;
  • have some entirely innocuous uses for it e.g. counting queues at traffic lights to adjust light phasings, detecting pedestrians so they can trigger a crossing;
  • want to use ANPR to collect trafic statistics. You can use it for traffic time statistics simply by logging the time it takes for a vehicle to pass between two points, but this raises privacy concerns if the data is retained. Worse, they want to use it to monitor traffic-flow "e.g. 10% of cars leaving from point A travel to point B; 30% travelled to point C etc" which raises more serious concerns, since it is actively tracking people's movements;
  • they also want to use ANPR to prevent non-residents parking in resident's parking areas; something which raises very serious privacy concerns (since they're matching vehicles to where people live).

The widespread use of ANPR raises real concerns, and while there are some good uses for it (and traffic-flow stats sound pretty useful), it hinges crucially on how long data is retained for. If data is immediately anonymised ("car1", "car 2" etc) or dumped the moment a vehicle passes the next point or within an hour, its fairly harmless. But if its retained for any longer than that, then what we really have is a widespread databasing of innocent people's movements. And once it exists, it will be used for other purposes - not just by police (who already request camera info, will request ANPR data if it is collected, and already pressure e.g. telecoms companies to retain data for longer than necessary to facilitate access), but by others. The idea of council staff using ANPR to track the movements of their abused partners, or selling the information to debt-collectors, or leaving it open to hackers to exploit and poke through at will is a nightmare. But its what will happen if we collect this. The best way to protect our privacy is not to collect information in the first place, and to destroy it the moment its purpose has passed.

Judith Collins' two-tier OIA service

Back in August, we learned that sewerblogger Cameron Slater was receiving extraordinary OIA service from then-Minister of Justice Judith Collins, in one case receiving a response to a request within 37 minutes. But it wasn't just extraordinary for its speed; from OIA records OIA'd via FYI, it appears that Slater's OIA requests were not even logged.

According to 3News, Slater's afterhours OIA for a letter the Minister had only just received was handled on December 21, 2012. Here's the relevant section of the logs:

Slater's OIA request doesn't appear. Which is highly unusual and suggests it was handled outside the normal process.

Slater's 37-minute OIA doesn't appear either, but two similar requests do:

(Thanks to @LostArcNZ for the excerpts and the legwork)

Neither matches either the final request - for correspondence since August 2012 - or the date of response: 12 February 2013. Its possible that the first request could be the relevant one, but then you have to ask why Collins' staff put the wrong response date in.

What's going on here/ It's pretty clear Collins was operating a two-tier OIA service: one for the public (official, logged, slow), and one for her pet sewerblogger (unlogged, lightning fast, with special tips on what to request and likely distorted release decisions). That's a gross abuse of power as a Minister, and to the extent that she politically profited from it, a corrupt use of official information.


This week we've seen the Prime Minister desperately trying to cover up his war plans by pretending that Obama's war-planning meeting was just a "regular" meeting of defence partners which we just happened to be attending. Over on Kiwipolitico Pablo has already told us why this is bullshit, and last night the Chief of Defence Force effectively said the same:

The Chief of Defence and the Prime Minister have been caught at odds as they prepare to send troops into Iraq.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating has admitted a meeting he attended with US President Barack Obama about the war against Islamic State was extraordinary. That's despite John Key claiming it was regular.

Lt Gen Keating was in Washington DC for a meeting of military chiefs, with Mr Obama taking charge.

"The President arriving is not regular; it's quite an extraordinary event," says Lt Gen Keating.

But then he tries to cover for the PM by saying that the NZDF had no clue that Obama would be attending. Which isn't exactly credible either. This isn't some surprise visit to a children's hospital; its a planned diplomatic event. And if our Chief of Defence Force isn't aware of what's happening at the events he's going to, then he shouldn't be representing us at them.

Are the police using ANPR to target the disabled?

The media this morning is full of stories of the paralysed man caught driving using a walking stick to reach the pedals. Its good that he's off the road, but there's one point in the story which raises questions:

The driver was caught at an automatic number plate recognition checkpoint this morning.

He had held a learner licence since 2002. He also had two passengers, neither of whom were licensed to drive.

So why was he in the ANPR database? Did he have a prior record of dangerous driving (which might justify inclusion), or are the police automatically classing disabled drivers as dangerous and databasing them as such - in which case there's a serious discrimination issue? I think we deserve some answers on this, and fast.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Security Council and free trade

Last week, New Zealand won a seat on the United Nations Security Council. And over the weekend the New Zealand business community made it clear what they wanted from the position:

A business director says New Zealand's new seat on the UN Security Council will help push free trade agreements through more quickly.

New Zealand's ten-year campaign to win a two-year seat on the body came to fruition yesterday in New York.

The Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, said having a place on the Security Council will enable better discussions on trade with other countries.

Grant Thornton Consultancy's tax director Greg Thompson said this would help advance free trade deals.

How? The UNSC doesn't have jurisdiction over trade. The only way this is going to happen is if New Zealand corruptly abuses its new position - a position we should be exercising to protect world peace - in order to gain benefits for ourselves. This would be deeply unethical, and the fact that the New Zealand business community is proposing it tells us everything we need to know about their lack of ethics.

National's failure on housing

A year ago National passed the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013. In his speech introducing the bill, then-Housing Minister Nick Smith laid down some clear targets:

It is an ambitious agreement, and sets out a plan to consent 9,000 homes in the first year, 13,000 homes in the second year, and 17,000 homes in the third year. That will have us consenting three times as many homes over the next 3 years as have been consented over the last 3 years.

Its now been a year since the bill was passed, so how many houses have actually been built under it? Five. And according to the Herald, the total number of consents issued is 294. The government is making excuses about this being a long-term project, but whichever way you look at it, they've failed to meet the targets they set for themselves. Which makes you wonder whether those targets had any basis in reality, or whether they were just chosen to sound good in a speech.

Monday, October 20, 2014

John Key on Iraq: A timeline

No New Zealand forces to Iraq, says Key. Stuff, 18 June 2014:

Prime Minister John Key has ruled out sending special forces soldiers to Iraq as the United States mulls options in response to the unfolding crisis there.

Speaking in New York, Key said the New Zealand Government was looking at what humanitarian aid it might provide as tens of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced by a violent takeover of parts of the country.

He said it was high unlikely New Zealand would put "boots on the ground" in Iraq in terms of combat troops.

"We're not a country out there looking for a fight," he said.

PM ponders NZ role in fight against Islamic State, TVNZ, 29 September 2014:
The Prime Minister is seeking advice as to how, and if, New Zealand could help out in the fight against Islamic State terrorists.

The United States hasn't specifically come to New Zealand for help - although John Key admitted that's likely to be because National is only in caretaker government mode.

He says he's just "being cautious" by seeking further advice and anything beyond humanitarian support is something the government would have to "carefully consider".

Key: SAS could join Isis fight on ground, New Zealand Herald, 30 September 2014:
Asked whether he would send military personnel if requested, Mr Key said: "I can't rule out that there won't be because what you can see around the world is countries being asked to give support."

As far as sending SAS personnel, Mr Key said: "I can't rule that absolutely out, but what I can say is that I'll get advice and we'll see how that goes, but it would be my least preferred option."

SAS in Iraq unlikely - Key, 3 News, 13 october 2014:
Mr Key told Radio New Zealand this morning that while he was reluctant to rule any type of involvement in or out at this stage, a combat role was unlikely.

"As to the SAS physically going into a combat role up against the ISIS... I would have thought that would be at the very outer edge of what we'd be wanting to do," Mr Key said.

Islamic State fight: PM ramps up talk of troops in Iraq, Stuff, 20 October 2014:
New Zealand troops could soon be following their Australian counterparts to Iraq to train Iraqi security forces, with Prime Minister John Key confirming that was "definitely an option".

At this rate, we will Always Have had Troops In Iraq by the end of the month.

New Fisk

With US-led strikes on Isis intensifying, it’s a good time to be a shareholder in the merchants of death

National doesn't care about crime by the rich

National likes to make a lot of noise about benefit fraud. Meanwhile, they've buried a report into the social costs of economic crime:

At the beginning of last year the then Minister for the SFO, Anne Tolley, was reported as saying that a number of Government ministries had been working for two years on a report quantifying the cost of economic crime and it would be presented to Cabinet in the near future.

But the report did not make it to Cabinet and was not released.

Radio New Zealand obtained a draft copy of the SFO's report under the Official Information Act. The methodologies that would have made it possible to calculate the total costs were redacted.

However, Radio New Zealand has also obtained a copy of the report with the estimated costs of the various types of economic crime included - which put the total cost of economic crime at between $6.1 and $9.4 billion.

To put this in perspective, in 2006 Treasury estimated the total cost of all crime in New Zealand at ~$9.1 billion (this includes about a billion for fraud). So, fraud by the rich costs us about the same as all the burglaries, drug deals and murders combined.

Its easy to see why National buried this. Tax fraud costs us ~$2 billion a year. White collar fraud across the private sector costs us ~$3.2 - $5.1 billion. These activities are carried out overwhelmingly by National's donors and cronies, and are vastly larger than the ~$80 million of estimated welfare fraud. Keeping us in the dark reduces the risk of being held accountable for this failure, reduces the pressure for them to act against their friends, and allows them to focus on kicking the poor. And if the cost is that the state is robbed of the sort of revenue which would allow it to end child poverty, well, they don't really care about that.

New kiwi blog

On The Left - a collective of lefties.

Habemus Parliament

So, a month after the election, we finally have a Parliament. Good. meanwhile, people seem to be noticing that the associated ceremony - white wigs, fancy dress, oaths of allegiance to a foreign monarch - isn't very kiwi (and tomorrow, with its "black rod", will be even worse. Seriously, the "gentleman usher" sounds like a Buffy villain). Wouldn't it be nice to have ceremonies which reflected the values and constitutional realities of modern New Zealand, rather than C18th Britain?

One of those value clashes is the oath. MPs are required to swear allegiance to the queen and her successors. This causes problems every year with MPs who believe it is more appropriate to swear allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi, or the constitution and people of New Zealand rather than a foreign millionaire. Our Parliament's way of handling this recently - effectively to ban all dissent - is simply white supremacist bullshit, a denial of our diversity and our democracy. It has to change. The quicker we do away with this colonial, feudal relic, the better.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Treasury cherry-picks its data

Yesterday we learned that Treasury didn't like food-in-schools. And now we know why: because they cherry-picked their data to support their preferred conclusion of leaving the poor to starve:

A report behind Treasury advice that said school breakfast programmes did not work, says the programmes may need to be used more, to get better results.

The Treasury cited an Auckland University study done in 2010 which showed that children's participation in breakfast programmes did not result in higher school attendance or achievement.

But the study also showed there was a significant decrease in children's hunger and that more frequent attendance of the programmes may be required to influence attendance and achievement.

Treasury document did not include these findings in its report to the Government.

This is intellectually dishonest. But its also another example of the deterioration in public service values under National. Public servants are supposed to be professionals, giving robust and unbiased free and frank advice. Treasury clearly isn't. They're a department of hacks, telling the government what it wants to hear (or, alternatively, serving their own right-wing ideological agenda). And that's simply not acceptable in our public service.

TPPA would criminalise journalism

Wikileaks leaked the latest version of the TPPA intellectual property chapter last night. There's some nasty surprises from the US, including its efforts to revive the defunct Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement by the backdoor and its efforts to ensure poor countries fighting, say, ebola can't violate patents to save lives and prevent an epidemic (because in American eyes, the profits of big pharmaceutical companies come before human lives). But there's another nasty sting: the TPPA would criminalise investigative journalism:

The draft text provides that TPP countries will introduce criminal penalties for unauthorised access to, misappropriation or disclosure of trade secrets, defined as information that has commercial value because it is secret, by any person using a computer system.

TPP countries may criminalise all such disclosures or, if they wish, limit criminal penalties to cases that involve "commercial advantage or financial gain"; are directed by or benefit "a foreign economic entity"; or are "detrimental to a [TPP] party's economic interests, international relations, or national defence or national security."

There are no public interest or free speech exemptions. Criminalisation of disclosure would apply to journalists working for commercial media organisations or wherever the leak was considered harmful to the "economic interests" of any TPP country.

Unmentioned: it also criminalises leaks which are detrimental to a party's international relations or international security. So, the US is trying to US the TPPA as a backdoor to silence WikiLeaks, the Snowden files, and the entire enterprise of journalistic criticism of power.

The TPPA was bad enough when it was merely a secret deal being negotiated against our interests. But now its actively anti-democratic as well. Which I think shows us the danger of allowing our governments to negotiate such deals in secret: because we may find out at the end of it that they've signed away our democracy.


As everyone already knows, New Zealand has won a term on the UN Security Council. I'm less than overjoyed by this. Why? For the simple reason that I do not trust our government to do the right thing in the position.

National has made it abundantly clear over its six years in office that its primary foreign policy goal is to crawl as far up America's arse as it possibly can. They've sent kiwi soldiers to Afghanistan to die in a pointless American war, and they're lining up to do the same for Iraq. They're fully committed to the Five Eyes mass-surveillance agenda, despite the UN finding that it violates international human rights law. They support American drone strikes, and American foot-dragging on climate change (something the US military thinks is an immediate threat to global security).

National will not change that goal simply because they have been elected to the UNSC, so rather than the independent voice the world voted for (and which they sold us as), they'll be getting an American patsy. The result will be bad for the world, and worse for our foreign policy. We've spent decades building that reputation for independence; its the only thing our mana-based foreign policy has. And National is going to piss it all away for some transitory international prestige and a chance to be a better boot-licker for their foreign masters. And we'll be paying for that betrayal for decades to come.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

ECan puts cows before people

Disturbing news from Canterbury: according to Green MP Eugenie Sage, ECan's dictators are planning to lower drinking water-quality standards to allow more dairy expansion - at the cost of poisoning the drinking water supply:

Environment Canterbury (ECan) is proposing several variations to its regional land and water plan that will allow for increased nutrient and other pollution from irrigation and intensive agriculture on the Canterbury Plains. Commissioners are hearing submissions on Variation 1 to the proposed Land and Water Plan and I popped along to listen.


ECan’s proposed plan variation for the Selwyn-Waihora catchment allows for a major increase in nitrate pollution in shallow groundwater – up to 8.5 mg/l of nitrate-nitrogen. This is more than half what the World Health Organisation considers acceptable for drinking water and breaches the targets in the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) as Dr Humphrey noted. ECan’s limit is not precautionary. It will allow nitrate levels to get too close to the unacceptable maximum for drinking water and prevent prompt remedial action such as changes in land use to reduce leaching.

Nitrate in drinking water can cause significant health effects including blue baby syndrome.

Basically they're putting cows before people, proposing a permanent contamination of groundwater (which people in Canterbury drink from) to allow more cows. A tiny minority of dairy farmers will make more profits, while the people of Canterbury will pay for it in water treatment costs and dead children.

That's what capitalism means under National: destroying our environment, and supporting the Mighty Cow on the backs of everybody else.

No wonder National destroyed Canterbury's democracy: because the people of Christchurch would never have voted to poison themselves for the enrichment of the few.

Protecting journalistic privilege in the UK

Recently we've learned that UK police have been abusing anti-terror laws to uncover journalists' sources. Now, the UK government is moving to end the practice:

Police will be banned from using anti-terrorism powers to monitor journalists’ telephones under plans to be detailed today by Theresa May.


Her intervention over police powers comes after it emerged that officers twice invoked the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) to access the phone logs of reporters to identify the sources of stories.

Under a new code of practice to be published within weeks, officers will have to demonstrate they are investigating a serious crime and may have to get permission for the move from a judge.

Its a welcome move - and one we need to duplicate here. Currently, the police can seize a journalist's phone records, stored emails and text messages simply with a production order signed by a JP, and there's no recognition of journalistic - or even legal - privilege. And we have no idea how often they're doing it, because they don't even bother to count. While this is a useful investigative tool, the safeguards are clearly insufficient. Parliament needs to tighten them.

John Key's contempt for our democracy

John Key has admitted what we all knew: that his government delays OIA requests for its own political purposes:

Mr Key has always maintained that when it comes to requests for official information, his ministers act within the law.

But he has now revealed a strategy which appears at odds with that.

"Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that's in our best interest to do that," he said.

And meanwhile, it uses the OIA as a backchannel to deliver dirt to its sewer-bloggers with a 20-minute response time...

The Ombudsman has pointed out that this is illegal. Responses must be made "as soon as reasonably practicable", with 20 working days as an upper limit. The government's political interests are not part of that calculation. But there's no penalties for non-compliance, and systematic government underfunding means that they won't even get a stern letter from the Ombudsman until a year after the fact. Which is why today's news is full of what should have been 2013's scoops: because the government has manipulated the process designed to hold it to account.

How do we fix this? Removing the current government is an obvious first step. But we can't rely on politicians to behave lawfully and with respect for our democracy out of the kindness of their hearts. So we need an Ombudsman's office with real funding and real teeth, backed by a law with criminal penalties where politicians have conspired to undermine our right to know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An example of the problem

How much contempt do National Ministers have for the OIA? Paula Bennett ignored an Ombudsman's ruling to hold back information that made the government look bad until after the election:

The advice [on child poverty] has finally been released under the Official Information Act after Radio New Zealand made a request in May last year. It took a complaint to the Ombudsman's Office to force former Social Development Minister Paula Bennett to release the information - but even then she managed to delay the release until after the election.

So much for the public duty to release once the Ombudsman has ruled...

But then, its no wonder, because the advice shows MSD blatantly ignoring their own findings to recommend what they believe the government wants to hear. It shows a department which has sacrificed its professionalism and surrendered its duty to provide free, frank and fearless advice - in the process tainting itself and compromising its ability to serve future governments. This destruction of public service values happens for one reason: because Ministers bully their departments. Its no wonder therefore that Bennett wanted to cover it up until our chance to hold her accountable had passed.

But what's worse is that Bennett is now Minister for State Services. So instead of bullying and compromising a single department, she now gets to bully and undermine all of them. So we can expect a lot more of this sort of shit in future.

Australia has the right idea on tax cheats

Australia has a problem: big corporations cheating on their taxes. So, the Australian Senate has asked them to front up and explain to Australians why they shouldn't pay their fair share:

Forty of Australia's biggest companies will be asked to explain their tax affairs to a Senate committee investigating corporate tax avoidance.

Companies shown, in a recent report, to have the lowest "effective tax rate" over the past decade and to operate the most subsidiaries in tax havens have been given the chance to outline their tax strategies before the committee decides which corporate leaders to call in to appear before public hearings.

The Senate can subpoena witnesses and committee chairman Sam Dastyari has vowed to use that power if the inquiry encounters resistance from big business.

Companies that will be invited to explain their persistently low tax contributions, according to the report, include shopping centre company Westfield, building products firm James Hardie, motorway group Transurban, Sydney Airport, Telstra, SingTel and Echo Entertainment, owner of Sydney's Star casino.

And suddenly, tax cheating has a reputational cost, and voters can see exactly what sort of selfish pricks do it.

I would love for our Parliament to do the same. But can you really imagine a National government hauling its donors and cronies before the Finance and Expenditure Committee to explain why they're laundering their money in the British Virgin Islands? No, I can't either. Because our government is on the side of the tax cheats, not us.

The failure of the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman released their annual report today, and its dismal. Yes, they've worked enormously hard, receiving 1,207 OIA complaints and completing 1,623 - more than twice as many as they are funded to handle. But they utterly failed to meet their timeliness targets, closing:


They also note that they had a significant decrease in complaints about unreasonable delays and deemed refusals. Given those timeliness stats, I can understand why: there's just no point anymore. It takes so long for the Ombudsman to notice a complaint and send that polite letter telling an agency to comply with the law that you might as well not bother, because even the most foot-dragging agency will respond first.

This is what happen when you fund your watchdog agency for only two-thirds of the workload it usually receives: it can't cope, and people lose faith in it. And that faith, once lost, is extremely difficult to get back.

The simple fact is that if the Ombudsman receives ~1200 OIA complaints a year, they should be funded to process that many. Because the cost of not processing them is agencies and Ministers running riot, and the public learning that the law is a joke. And that's not good for our democracy. Sadly, it is very good for those Ministers, which is why the problem has been allowed to fester for so long.