We at the Council of Civil Liberties enjoy a good blog post as much as the next person, and were interested to see Privacy Commissioner John Edwards' take on new documentary The 5th Eye which premiered recently at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington.
The film by Errol Wright & Abi King-Jones tells the story of three peace activists - now commonly referred to as the Waihopai Three - who in 2008 sabotaged the country's most visible spy station. Along the way the film makers explain New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. It serves as a helpful and accessible telling of events over the last eight years, a period which has left many people confused or overwhelmed.
NZCCL was happy to make a donation towards the film's production, and an interview with Thomas Beagle (current NZCCL chairperson) is included. I attended the premiere where it was very well received.
Edwards' blog post offers few new insights, settling instead to repeat the government's distraction strategy: to conflate Cortex (which was not a part of the Snowden leaks) with the mass surveillance programmes Speargun, Prism and XKeyscore which were.
However, the reveal of Cortex was part of a government strategy to distract the public from those other mass surveillance programmes. The Privacy Commissioner played into this public relations campaign by hosting a public event for then acting GCSB director Una Jagose. When that event was disrupted by protesters, Edwards pulled the plug and promised to reschedule.
..it was discovered that your office had conducted background investigations on all the attendees so that you could identify people with dissenting opinions, or that might have links to the protesters, and then excluded them from attending the rescheduled event. At the time however you said how important it was to have open discussions and that “This is about freedom of speech”, and "I am not going to have a process of vetting”, and yet that is exactly what you did.
..you criticise the filmmakers for not including footage from a meeting we were barred from covering by your own office
Strangely, I never received any notification or invitation to the rescheduled event despite attending the first. At the time I wrote that off as an oversight. Now I find myself wondering if it was that simple.
I've been generally impressed with Edwards' work as Privacy Commissioner. The office has been modernised, its guidance brought up to date with the modern digital world, and great new services launched such as AboutMe and Priv-o-matic.
At the same time I must agree with Errol and Abi:
We are at a loss to understand why the Office of the Privacy Commission appears to be prepared to act as an apologist for the GCSB and government instead of championing New Zealanders’ basic human rights.
The 5th Eye can still be seen at NZIFF events around the country - visit http://www.nziff.co.nz/2016/ to find your nearest event.