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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Whispering to become illegal?

4 September 2018

Imagine for a moment that you're engaged in a private conversation with a friend, in a public place.

You speak in hushed tones, not wishing to have your personal, and possibly sensitive discussion overheard by those nearby.

Suddenly, and without warning, two uniformed police officers appear in front of you and demand to know the exact details of what has been said.

You are told that if you do not comply with their orders to repeat your conversation so they can hear what was said, you will be locked up until you do.

Sounds outrageous... right?

This is the sort of thing that would only happen under the rule of a ruthless and paranoid despot... right?

Well no, it's actually the sort of thing that is already law or planned to become law in otherwise civilised Western nations such as the UK and Australia -- and now it appears that it may be coming to New Zealand

Okay, so we won't have jack-booted Stasi-like forces fronting up to your table in the local cafe and demanding to know what you're whispering about with a friend -- but we will have the next best thing.

I am, of course, talking about the thorny issue of encryption.

In this story, InternetNZ has called for a discussion on the fact that governments of the Five Eyes nations (which includes New Zealand) are considering "technological, enforcement, legislative or other measures" to circumvent end-to-end encryption over the Net.

Such measures could be as simple as requiring all encryption systems to have a "back door" which is available to Five Eyes agencies for the purpose of surveilling the contents of such encrypted communications.

This option has (naturally) outraged everyone and anyone who has the remotest understanding of cryptography. There is no such thing as a "safe" back door and attempting to force some kind of universal access will destroy the integrity and trustworthiness of such systems.

Another strategy is to introduce legislation that forces the parties involved in an encrypted exchange to hand over the keys "on demand". This is the equivalent of those nasty jackbooted thugs standing over you at your coffee table to which I alluded earlier. If you don't hand over the keys then it's off to prison with you... until you do.

If you've forgotten the keys -- or if they were one-time-use and thus have been irretrievably destroyed -- well that's just tough cheese and you'll rot in jail for the rest of your life (presumably). Remember... this applies even if your encrypted conversation was simply a link to a funny cat video on Facebook!

Now I'm sorry... but from where I stand, the right to privacy is an irrevocable human right.

If we are to be stripped of the right to speak with others in privacy then we are no longer being treated like human beings.

Of course "the powers that be" will tell us "we would never abuse this power" -- just like they never abused their power by using it unlawfully to surveil Kim Dotcom and scores of other NZers. Oh, and isn't Nicky Hager enjoying compensation for having been the victim of similar abuses not so long ago?

I'm sorry, but any claims of "trust us" from those who want to grant themselves the rights to listen to our every conversation are totally laughable in this context.

In recent times we've seen the spectre of "terrorism" and "national security" used as a feeble excuse for the erosion of huge swathes of our (formerly) inalienable rights. If the government thinks that we are going to accept jackbooted Stasi-type surveillance of our most private and intimate conversations under this faux premise then I for one will not stand for it -- and I would hope that every other person in the nation would make it very clear that neither will they.

What do readers think?

Even if we were all at imminent risk of terrorism, is it not better to die on your feet than live on your knees... dehumanised and abused by the very governments we elect to run our nation and preserve our rights?

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