Edward Snowden! Julian Assange! Glenn Greenwald! Kim Dotcom! Also starring: your metadata! Whom you talk to, when, how and for how long. And introducing: the content of your conversations! Everything you say or write to people using electronic and telephone networks, analysed by algorithms and rendered searchable, then archived on a secure database.
This was the global surveillance picture show, as performed on Monday night at the Auckland Town Hall in front of 1,500 people and followed by tens of thousands around the world. The Guardian set up a dedicated live blog and for a few hours the eyes of the world were on New Zealand. Perhaps I should say different eyes, seeing as we all are being watched all the time, but irony is the least of our problems.
It is a terribly complicated story, which began after Assange absconded but before Snowden defected, when a German immigrant by the name of Kim Dotcom was granted residency in New Zealand, following which his mansion was raided on the behest of the FBI, his computers seized, many of his assets frozen, and an extradition process was initiated against him on charges of aiding and abetting copyright infringement over his Megaupload file-sharing service.
A long and ongoing legal battle ensued, and the extrovert entrepreneur became a civil rights campaigner, later still, the founder of the Internet Party.
It was under the banner of this party that Monday’s event was organised. Dotcom billed it months in advance as The Moment of Truth, the night when – five days out from the general election – he would deliver a mortal blow on Prime Minister John Key, whom he blames for selling him to the Americans. He flew in Glenn Greenwald. He orchestrated a live encrypted video link with Snowden and Assange. Together, they would deliver that blow and make revelations as to the extent of mass surveillance not only in New Zealand, but in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and internationally as well.
It was a big night, at the end of a big day. Articles by Snowden and Greenwald for The Intercept published in the afternoon outlined the charges against the New Zealand government and the Prime Minister: that they lied about the actions of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), repeatedly reassuring New Zealanders that they weren’t being targeted by mass surveillance while pushing through a law that would enable the agency to consolidate and extend its powers in this area, as well as its ability to work with the NSA and other sister agencies within the alliance.
In the same hours, a truculent email was leaked to The New Zealand Herald purporting to show how the prime minister had personally conspired with a Warner Brothers executive and the Hollywood studios lobby to expedite the capture and rendition of Dotcom. This was believed to be Dotcom’s smoking gun, although it has since emerged that he wasn’t the one who leaked it, and its authenticity remains in doubt.
For his part, two hours prior to the event, Prime Minister Key hastily declassified and released a set of documents concerning an unrelated and later abandoned GCSB programme, in the hope of countering the revelations or at least muddying the waters.
Once the scene was set, it was inevitable perhaps that the event delivered both too much and too little. Too big a story this close to an election; too much invective as Greenwald responded to Key’s juvenile attacks to his credibility; too many questions raised, and not enough time to answer them before we, the governed, get on with the business of consenting, three days from now.
The allegations are that yes, of course New Zealanders are subjected to mass surveillance, just like the Australians, the Britons, the Canadians, the Americans. It’s just semantics, or a game of Five-Card Monte: each nation spies on the other’s citizens on behalf of the other’s government. But that’s just the theory, a nicety: in practice, as Snowden vividly described, it’s up to (for instance) the New Zealand analyst to leave the New Zealand box unchecked in the list of search results. And who’s going to monitor that?
However, the issues raised go well beyond the specific issue of surveillance alone – important as that is – and invests the running of modern capitalist democracies and the global marketplace. Just like the spectacular criminalisation of Dotcom – his home was raided using helicopters, as if he had been a mobster – for what used to be regarded as a civil wrong, so too the practice of unlawful mass surveillance fits within the authoritarian, secretive, corporate logic of globally integrated states. This logic demands that each state cede sovereignty in exchange for security and economic benefits, only to use those security arrangements and those trade deals to further limit the ability of its citizens to make meaningful decisions.
Forget what I said earlier: it’s the irony that kills you. This was supplied by the cast of the show: Greenwald, Snowden, Assange, Dotcom; the world’s attention; Five Eyes, the NSA; the international order of which New Zealand is so small yet so integral a part. Arguably the only thing that was clear and incontrovertible at the end of night was that we couldn’t have put on such a show ourselves. It took a German millionaire who flew in an American journalist and beamed in a hacker and a spy, one in London, the other in Moscow, to break this story that might have had international interest but was primarily – and intimately – about us, our lives, our right to know, our democracy.
In other words: it was a blockbuster. And, like the occasional blockbuster that is shot on location in New Zealand, it could only be made with someone else’s money. That is the ultimate irony and a function of our runaway globalisation: to be placed at the centre of stories that you cannot afford to investigate or tell.