Without Consent


John Key1

Dear John,

Thanks for your letter dated 28 September, 2014.  I actually wrote to you a while ago but you never replied so it was great to get your response.  I’m sorry to answer straight away; I know how irritating it is to finally get around to emailing someone after putting it off for months and then they answer straight back.  Sorry.  I expect you won’t reply for a bit.  I understand.  I just wanted to give you my thoughts.

Firstly, thanks for mentioning my field first off in your list of objectives: “Once the Government is sworn in, we will be getting to work quickly on our priorities. These include implementing our education reforms to lift professional standards.”  I say thank you, but I am actually very offended by this statement.  Do you think I am unprofessional?  I would like to talk about this some more, but I will let it go.  For now.

Another thing I wanted to say was: please don’t work on a referendum process for a potential change to the New Zealand flag as you say you want to.  My only reason is that there are lots of other things your government needs to get sorted first and this feels like a massively distracting, pointless waste of time.   You said that the media focused a lot on peripheral issues during the election and this flag thing feels like just that: a peripheral issue.

On that note, I was just wondering what you thought the peripheral issues were.  I’m hoping that they are not, in your mind, the very serious allegations regarding Dirty Politics, or Greenwald and Snowden’s claims about surveillance.  I say this because I was struck by something just last week.

There are two teachers at my school (very professional teachers I should add) doing the Greenham Common Peace Protest with their Year 11 History classes.  I had never heard of it, and borrowed a book from them called On the Perimeter.  I picked it up because I noticed that it was written by Caroline Blackwood who wrote Great Granny Webster which is one of those excellent, British black comic novels I had never heard of.  On the Perimeter is a very good book, and the Greenham Common Peace Protest was extraordinary.

They had come to the base at Greenham in order to remind the world that the Cruise missile can carry a warhead ten times stronger that the bombs that devastated [Hiroshima and Nagasaki], that 160 of these missiles will be sited in Great Britain, that the British public had not voted for their presence.

On the Perimeter, Caroline Blackwood

It was a protest that ran for 19 years at the RAF base at Greenham Common which had been turned into an American military base housing cruise missiles aimed at the USSR.  This naturally meant that the USSR had missiles somewhere aimed at Greenham Common.  Women began to show up in response and built camps at all the gates and possible points around the base:

They believed that by their presence on Greenham Common they were acting as symbolic candles that represented the conscience of humanity.


Reading the book reminded me of the peculiar feeling many of us had in the early and mid 80s that everyone getting wiped out in a nuclear apocalypse was perfectly possible.  We read When the Wind Blows, and listened to Two Tribes and Russians, and watched The Day After.  I seem to remember that there was even a show on TVNZ with a pull out section in The Listener where we were taken through a nuclear strike in New Zealand and filled out multi-choice questions at home:

A nuclear bomb detonates above Wellington, do you –

a) die?

b) die?

c) die?

Do you remember that, John?  I remember it and I was ten in 1983.  I only ask because you say you can’t remember what you thought about the Springbok Tour in 1981.  I can remember what I thought and I was eight.  I thought it was a shame all those rugby games got mucked about with.  Of course I was eight and hadn’t heard of Apartheid.

Anyway, that line from the quote above – “that the British public had not voted for their presence” – also reminded me of something.  It reminded me of one of the things that Edward Snowden said at The Moment of Truth.  Now, I know you weren’t a fan of The Moment of Truth, but you should know that I wasn’t either.  I wasn’t a fan of WhaleDump either.  These things shouldn’t distract us from what was worth hearing though.  Snowden and Greenwald (you think he’s a loser but that’s not really true) had plenty to say worth hearing:

Maybe [the people of New Zealand] want to sacrifice a certain measure of their liberty and say, “it’s ok if the government watches me.  I’m concerned about terrorism.  I’m concerned about foreign threats.”  We can have people in every country make that decision because that’s what democracy is about… but that decision doesn’t belong to John Key, or officials in the GCSB, making these decisions behind closed doors without public debate, without public consent.  That decision belongs exclusively to the people of that country.

Edward Snowden, Moment of Truth

It’s that little matter of consent that is irksome.  At Greenham Common the peace protesters were disturbed by the idea that their government could turn their country into a target for nuclear attack, and allow nuclear weapons to be stored in their countryside without the consent of the people.  I find it troubling that we are allies with the NSA, collaborating with them and their programmes, which include the gathering of metadata on all New Zealanders, and that no one has asked the people of New Zealand if they think this is ok.  By “no one” I mean you, John.

There is a wonderful metaphor in On the Perimeter.

They had a favourite analogy of the endangered Arctic explorer.  He has to fight the overwhelming desire to lie down in the snow and shut his eyes.  If he once lets himself shut his eyes, he will die.  The Greenham women felt that too many people were shutting their eyes in the snow – that they found it much easier not to think about the inevitable end-product of all the frenetic international manufacturing of weapons.


Or all the frenetic international surveillance.  I’m worried that a referendum on the flag will be too much snow for us.  That we will all have a lie down and close our eyes.

I think that Snowden accurately characterises what most people think about mass surveillance: that people might want to sacrifice a certain measure of liberty for protection against threats.  But that’s not the problem.  Police have been doing this job for years under what are – in theory anyway – tight controls, and warrant systems.  Most people opposed to mass surveillance have no (or at least less of) a problem with this targeted surveillance; the problem is how this has been used to justify an extension of surveillance to cover everyone because we live in the supposed world of terrorists under the bed.

Surveillance is a problematic word in this debate.  What the NSA do on our behalf is not mass surveillance it is mass data storage which permits retrospective surveillance on anyone.

There was an interesting moment on Morning Report when Guyon Espiner – your mate Guyon – was interviewing Sir Bruce Fergusson after The Moment of Truth.  Espiner asked a what if question.  What if Espiner had been up to no good, could the GCSB request all the metadata on him?  Fergusson prevaricated but the answer was clearly yes.   This means that we seem to be able to have it both ways.  We can say we are not conducting mass surveillance because the Americans are handling the data collection for us, but the GCSB can gain access to any New Zealander’s metadata at any time if it wants to because the NSA are collecting it all.

Let’s continue to use Espiner as an example, because he’s a useful one.  A lot of people say that they don’t care about this mass data collection: “if they want to look at my boring emails’, the thinking goes, “then they’re welcome to them”.  I have two problems with this.  Firstly, I think it is unhelpful to look at the current situation when thinking about what we let the government do or not do.  A lot of people trust you, John.  I don’t.  That’s not personal.  I don’t trust anyone with powers that are not scrutinised.  To all those people who do trust you I would like to ask how they would feel if there was a Prime Minister in the future they didn’t trust?  What if we find ourselves in a situation like the 1981 Springbok Tour again with the state and a significant range of the population in open conflict?  Or, if you can’t remember that, how about an example from history: Hoover’s approach to Martin Luther King.

We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance.  Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent.  We shouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behaviour and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.

Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide

Which brings us back to Espiner and journalism, and the second problem I have with mass data collection and retrospective surveillance.  This problem is being played out in Australia right now.

New anti-terror laws have aroused concerns that journalists could go to jail for doing their most important job: holding those in authority to account. And on the most vital of issues — national security.

On top of that, plans to increase the range of communications data that can be accessed by authorities, and the time for which it is stored, would add to difficulties already faced by reporters in the digital age.

Journalists need to shield the identity of confidential sources. Otherwise whistleblowers will not come forward. But protecting sources is becoming almost impossible because our contacts and movements can be so closely monitored by our digital trail.

Laurie Oakes, Herald Sun

If we want a media that can tell us when our government is doing things it shouldn’t be doing then we want a free press that can protect its sources.  If Espiner were to suddenly break a story on Radio New Zealand from an undisclosed source it would be perfectly possible for the GCSB – with its warrant – to go and find who that source was by looking at all of Espiner’s metadata retrospectively.  There would be no need to even get to the content of his emails.

One of the most interesting things that Snowden said at The Moment of Truth was that metadata was preferable to content, because metadata was cleaner.  Various people in various places have pointed out exactly how complete a picture the NSA could build of your entire life by looking only at metadata.  It makes a lie of the standard defence tried around the world by governments:

Dianne Feinstein [Chair of the Committee on Intelligence] has explicitly argued in USA Today that the metadata collection of all Americans’ telephone records “is not surveillance” at all because it “does not collect the content of any communication.”

Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide

Now, sorry to be a bore, but I feel like there are all kinds of other problems with being buddies with the NSA.  Like how they are involved in the drone strike programme.  Remember Daryl Jones?  He was the New Zealander you were comfortable with the Americans executing in Yemen.

The United States did not inform New Zealand of this strike; Mr Key’s spies told him afterwards.

“My intelligence agencies informed me. I don’t know where they got the information from.”

TV3 News, 16 April 2014

“I don’t know where they got it from”.  The NSA perhaps?  Our ally in the Five Eyes programme?  Don’t ask, don’t tell is not an appropriate policy for the man signing warrants for surveillance on individuals that then leads to their murder.

Around the same time we had stories breaking about Huawei.

The former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, believes Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei Technologies is a significant security threat to Australia and the US, has spied for the Chinese government, and intelligence agencies have hard evidence of its activities.

Stuff, 29 July 2013

Which is relevant when you remember the news in 2012.

New Zealand has signed up Huawei as part of the $1.5-billion broadband roll-out, with Prime Minister John Key saying “it should be fine”. But that is because the Huawei deal was vetted by New Zealand security agencies, most likely spy agency the GCSB.

“Our security agencies have… worked through the exercise before and after the contract was let,” Minister of Economic Development Steven Joyce says.

The GCSB will now monitor Huawei, which is a cause of concern within the Government’s ranks.

3 News, 9 October 2012

And yet our ally, the USA, is on record at doing exactly what they accuse Huawei of doing.  In fact, Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA oversaw it:

A June 2010 report from the head of the NSA’s Access and Target Development department is shockingly explicit.  The NSA routinely receives – or intercepts – routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers.  The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools….

All of this is pretty serious.  It involves industrial espionage, spying on allies and partners for economic and trade gains, and passing the lives of our citizens over to other nations based on surveillance we are not allowed to see, outside our own court system which does not permit the death penalty for any crime.

Couldn’t we take a different approach?  An independent approach that doesn’t involve supporting this kind of thing on any side?

While we’re on the subject of industrial espionage, and spying on allies for economic and trade gains, I noticed this in your letter: “[we] will work hard on an FTA with the United States and other partners who are looking to form the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  There are a lot of people who are very worried about the TPPA, and the way the negotiations are being conducted.  The idea that America could be trusted to conduct negotiations behind closed doors with clean hands is laughable.  I think we have been told that nothing will be done without a final approval from parliament, but now that you have an outright majority this seems quite worrisome.  It’s not really a democratic vote in that case because I’m pretty sure that you didn’t mention the TPPA in the election so no one voted for National on the basis of your ideas about the TPPA.  Perhaps we could have a referendum about that?  Or our Five Eyes involvement?

John, I’m afraid this has not been a very positive letter.  If you’re still reading this – and let’s be honest, you probably aren’t – I just wanted to say that there are a lot of people who want to talk about a lot of things that aren’t peripheral to them, and waving a flag won’t distract them.  Well, let’s be honest, it probably will.  You’re probably right and I’m probably wrong.  I’m just telling you what I feel, and I am only one person.  Nevertheless I think you should listen to as many people as possible.  The women at the gates of the military base on Greenham Common, the protesters on Molesworth Street in 1981, the whistle blowers and their journalists, the campaigners against the TPPA; they might be wrong, but they deserve their voice, their freedom to express that voice without wondering if they are being watched, or will be watched unless they conform with undemocratic decisions taken in their name.

Take care,


Published by


I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō