Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Climate change: Saving the world might not cost anything

One of the core assumptions of the climate policy debate has been that stopping climate change will cost us. It might not be very much - a few percent less economic growth over twenty years - but the assumption has been that the economic effect will be negative. Now, a new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate suggests that that might not be true:

A global commission will announce its finding on Tuesday that an ambitious series of measures to limit emissions would cost $4 trillion or so over the next 15 years, an increase of roughly 5 percent over the amount that would likely be spent anyway on new power plants, transit systems and other infrastructure.

When the secondary benefits of greener policies — like lower fuel costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills — are taken into account, the changes might wind up saving money, according to the findings of the group, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

There's some stuff in the article about the difficulty of estimating benefits and the supposed impossibility of assigning monetary value to lives saved. But governments do this all the time. In New Zealand, we work out whether it is worth fixing an accident blackspot by comparing the cost to the value of lives saved (which apocryphally we value at a million dollars each). We assess home insulation schemes by the value of lives saved, hospitalisations prevented, and sick-days avoided. And we do the same with air quality standards. You can quibble the precise numbers, but such cost-benefit analyses are widely accepted, and they're not exactly rocket science.

The bigger problem is that while benefits may outweigh costs globally, they may not locally. Greenhouse gases are overwhelmingly emitted by the rich world, but the resulting environmental damage will be largely inflicted on the poor. Which means that those lives saved simply may not be on the balance sheets of polluter nations. And that's the real problem right there.

Key admits the GCSB has broken the law

When on Monday Edward Snowden alleged that New Zealand data was held in the NSA's XKEYSCORE database, and that the GCSB had access to it, Key refused to comment. Now he's come clean and admitted that Snowden "may well be right". But its all OK because (according to Key) the information wasn't gathered by GCSB. Except then he says that it is:

"However, what I can say in terms of those kinds of Five Eyes databases... yes New Zealand will contribute some information but not mass, wholesale surveillance as people might say."
Parsing this, John Key is clearly saying that the GCSB is collecting (some) information on New Zealanders for intelligence purposes. The problem? That's absolutely illegal. While Key inserted a nice little loophole allowing metadata spying for cybersecurity purposes, his spy law still explicitly bans the GCSB from spying on New Zealanders for intelligence purposes. Which raises the obvious question: are the GCSB breaking the law by spying on kiwis for intelligence purposes, or are they breaking the law by spying for cybersecurity then using the information for intelligence purposes anyway? I think we deserve some answers on this.

Also note: if the GCSB has access to XKEYSCORE, and XKEYSCORE has information on New Zealanders, then arguably they've intercepted it even if that information has been collected by another agency, as they have "acquired" it. And if they actually look at it, there's no "arguable" about it. Acquiring or receiving a communication, or acquiring its "substance, meaning, or sense" (meaning a summary or translation) is legally intercepting it, and if done without a lawful warrant (and again, no warrant on a New Zealander for intelligence purposes is lawful) is a crime. So, GCSB staff trained in XKEYSCORE: congratulations, you're all criminals.

Taking a stand against dirty politics

A month ago, Nicky Hager published Dirty Politics, and set this election on fire. Today, over 2,100 people took a stand against the dirty politics he revealed, through a crowdfunded full-page ad in the Herald


(Image stolen from @DirtyPoliticsNZ)

Collectively, we're calling for a royal commission into dirty politics, the restoration of democracy in Canterbury, freedom of speech for academics and community leaders, better public broadcasting, and better freedom of information laws. Hopefully, the next government will listen.

New Fisk

Islamic State: Assad lures Obama into his web

Fiji votes

Fijians are heading to the polls today in the first elections since the 2006 coup. Good - Fiji deserves an elected government, not an unelected dictator. But the dictator is fighting hard to stop it. There's the weird ballot paper seemingly designed to frustrate voters, the disqualification of opposition candidates, and a pre-election media blackout which in practice applies only to the opposition. And of course, there's the ultimate threat: if voters don't rubberstamp the dictator, he'll just launch another coup.

The polls close at six, but full results could take up to a week. But hopefully we'll have an indication well before then of whether Fiji has voted to rid itself of its dictator, or entrench him.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Advance voting again

Another day, more incredible advance voting statistics:


287,735 of us have already voted. And with four days to go, I think we can safely assume that it will reach 650,000. Which on current enrolment figures, means almost 20% of the potential electorate will have voted in advance.

Historically, advance votes have tended to swing right. But with twice as many as before, its anyone's guess. Its also anyone's guess how much of this represents increased turnout versus people getting it done early. But I'd guess that we're probably going to see a slight bump in turnout, perhaps as much as 5%. Which should be good news no matter who you support.

A solid policy

While National is teasing people with promises of tax cuts maybe sometime, the Greens have introduced another small but solid policy: a maternity box. Based on the Finnish maternity box (which reduced their infant mortality and is one of the reasons it is among the lowest in the world), its basically a start kit for new parents. If Finland is anything to go by, its likely to have a dramatic effect on newborn health, and all for a mere $15 million.

It also shows how cheap it can be to solve some of our pressing social problems. Baby boxes and food in schools don't cost the earth (on the government spending scale these are trivial policies, just above pocket change) but they can have a dramatic effect. National's refusal to implement them is purely a matter of choice and priorities, not cost. And when the cost is so low, and the evil they address so great, you really have to wonder how twisted and selfish our government's priorities are...

The Chewbacca defence

People may remember this old South Park classic. Faced with a case he cannot win, a lawyer attempts to distract the jury by introducing irrelevant material and claiming it's a defence.

That's pretty much what John Key has done over allegations that the GCSB spied on New Zealanders. Confronted with documentary evidence of a GCSB program called SPEARGUN to tap the Southern Cross Cable and spy on all our international internet traffic, Key declassified and released documents relating to a completely different GCSB spying program. SPEARGUN is about tapping cables. Key's CORTEX is about using off-the-shelf software to protect select government departments and key businesses from malware. There's no relation between the two. Like the wookie says, "it does not make sense".

But Key doesn't need it to make sense. Instead, he just wants to create the impression that he's presented a defence, relying on people's respect for his office and belief that the Prime Minister of New Zealand wouldn't blatantly lie to people's faces to do the rest. He's used this tactic before, successfully. Hopefully, with so much on the line, it will fail this time.

Arrest the NSA

Last night's "Moment of Truth" produced only one big revelation: according to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the NSA have two bases in New Zealand: one in Auckland and in the north.

Lets be clear: if the NSA are intercepting communications or accessing computer systems from New Zealand, they are breaking New Zealand law. They need to be arrested and prosecuted. If convicted, they need to be jailed, deported, and their equipment and buildings seized as instruments of crime.

We should not allow foreign spies to break the law here. Its that simple. Stopping them is supposed to be the GCSB and SIS's job. If they permit it, or turn a blind eye, we can only conclude that they don't work for us anymore and that they need to be shut down.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The other option for the left

While everyone was rightly paying attention to the Key / Dotcom / GCSB revelations today, Winston Peters made a modest proposal: another Labour-NZ First coalition:

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said today that voters should consider a Labour-New Zealand First as a potential alternative Government, not Labour and Greens, in what is the most definitive statement from him yet on post-election options.

That suggests that would keep the Green Party away from the cabinet table in any Labour-Led Government as he did in 2005.

I would prefer to see a Labour-Green government, and it would be very disappointing to see the Greens shut out again. But even Labour-NZ First would be better than what we have at present. If the numbers work, I can't see the Greens as having any real choice over supporting such a government over confidence and supply. And given the policy convergence on the left (which includes NZ First), I think they'd be happy with the broad general direction of such a government, even though many of the specific policies would not go far enough. Provided they get some redlines thwarting Winston on immigration in exchange for confidence and supply, they could then negotiate policy MOUs in areas of interest - or just sit on the crossbenches and subject every proposal to a Green veto to maximise concessions.

The GCSB is tapping all our traffic

This morning, John Key categorically denied that the GCSB had tapped the Southern Cross Cable.

But according to an article by Gleen Greenwald just published in The Intercept, he lied about that too:

Top secret documents provided by the whistleblower demonstrate that the GCSB, with ongoing NSA cooperation, implemented Phase I of the mass surveillance program code-named “Speargun” at some point in 2012 or early 2013. “Speargun” involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable. This cable carries the vast majority of internet traffic between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and mass collection from it would mark the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades.

Upon completion of the first stage, Speargun moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables. The NSA documents note that the first such metadata probe was scheduled for “mid-2013.” Surveillance probes of this sort are commonly used by NSA and their partners to tap into huge flows of information from communication cables in real time, enabling them to extract the dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, and the like. The technique is almost by definition a form of mass surveillance; metadata is relatively useless for intelligence purposes without a massive amount of similar data to analyze it against and trace connections through.


the documents indicate that Speargun was not just an idea that stalled at the discussion stage. It was a system GCSB actively worked to implement. One top secret 2012 NSA document states: “Project Speargun underway.” Another top secret NSA document discussing the activities of its surveillance partners reports, under the heading “New Zealand,” that “Partner cable access program achieves Phase I.”

Critically, the NSA documents note in more than one place that completion of Speargun was impeded by one obstacle: The need to enact a new spying law that would allow the GCSB, for the first time, to spy on its own citizens as well as legal residents of the country. As one NSA planning document put it, completion of Speargun was “awaiting new GCSB Act expected July 2013.”

Key has of course said that his spy law did not legalise metadata spying. But he lied about that too; it was the whole purpose of the law.

But this is no longer about the Prime Minister's honesty - it is about our freedom. Our own spies have conspired to tap all our international phone and internet traffic. And they've had a law passed to make it all legal, while getting the Prime Minister to systematically lie to the public about what it entailed. The presence of the GCSB is no longer compatible with our democracy. We must vote their pawns out and shut them down.

The left returns in Sweden

Swedes went to the polls yesterday to elect a new Parliament - and returned the left to power after eight years of right-wing government. The reason? The right's assault on social democracy was a betrayal of Swedish values:

Many Swedes are worried that reforms under Reinfeldt have gone too far, weakening healthcare, allowing business to profit from schools at the expense of results and dividing a nation that has prided itself on equality into haves and have-nots.

Voters have been shocked by scandals over privately-run state welfare – including one case where carers at an elderly home were reportedly weighing diapers to save money – and bankruptcies of privately run schools.

"We need to re-find our values, those that say we take care of each other, that it is not all about the rich getting it better," said Sofia Bolinder, playing with her young daughter in a playground after voting in the suburb of Skarpnack in southern Stockholm. Bolinder, in her 30s, said she voted for a party "on the left".

But its not going to be easy. Sweden has a pariah party - the racist, anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats - which no-one will deal with. And as they won 13% of the vote, minority government is inevitable. Normally that would be easy, due to Nordic consensus seeking, but the outgoing government is playing hardball. So coalition negotiations are going to be difficult...

Key lied about knowing Dotcom

Back in 2012, John Key told us he had never heard of Kim Dotcom until the day before the infamous raid.

He lied about that too:

The email being relied on by Dotcom is dated October 27, 2010 and is purported to be from Warner Brothers chairman and chief executive Kevin Tsujihara to a senior executive at the Motion Picture Association of America - the lobby group for the Hollywood studios.


The claimed email reads: "We had a really good meeting with the Prime Minister. He's a fan and we're getting what we came for. Your groundwork in New Zealand is paying off. I see strong support for our anti-piracy effort.

"John Key told me in private that they are granting Dotcom residency despite pushback from officials about his criminal past. His AG will do everything in his power to assist us with our case. VIP treatment and then a one-way ticket to Virginia.

"This is a game changer. The DOJ is against the Hong Kong option. No confidence in the Chinese. Great job."

I guess when the PM said this morning that there were "no records", he didn't stop to think that other people might have kept some, however informal.

But while it matters to Dotcom, its small news compared to the GCSB revelations. What it does tell us though is that Key is a liar, and a systematic one at that. He has consistently been deceitful with us on this issue. And if he's lied about this, what else has he lied about?

Do the people of New Zealand really want a proven liar as Prime Minister?

New Fisk

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Key lies to us again

When Gleen Greenwald spoke on Saturday morning and accused the GCSB of engaging in mass-surveillance, John Key was absolutely unequivocal: it didn't happen. His spies had apparently looked into a mass surveillance program, but it had never been implemented.

Now he's telling us that part of it was implemented:

Mr Key has said the GCSB was working on a business study for a form of "mass cyber protection" following cyber attacks on several large New Zealand companies. Mr Key had told them it was too broad a net. However, this morning he indicated it had gone ahead on a limited capacity.

"I said I think it's too broad .. so in the end I said let's set it at a much more narrow level."

And tomorrow he'll no doubt be telling us that OK, he gave them everything they wanted, but its not "mass surveillance".

He was also quite unequivocal this morning that "we don't use our partners to circumvent the law" (another claim he has made repeatedly). Greenwald apparently has documents that show they do. What will it be then? "we only circumvent the law a little bit?"

And this is the problem in a nutshell: Secrecy lets our leaders lie to us. It lets spies get away with breaking the law (88 cases revealed as a result of Dotcom, plus whatever we learn tonight), and no-one can be held accountable for it. And when there's a hint of transparency around wrongdoing, we get selective declassification to protect the Prime Minister's reputation (something which raises some very pointy questions).

That's just wrong. When government agents break the law, they should be punished just like any other person. And the Ministers and officials who are supposed to make sure they don't need to lose their jobs. Secrecy and spies are a barrier to that. And that's why we need to end both.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"National security" or "National's security"?

So, John Key has decided to double down on Glenn Greenwald's revelations about GCSB spying, promising to declassify and release documents showing that a proposed panopticon was discussed but never implemented:

Mr Key has admitted for the first time that yes, New Zealand spies did look into what he calls a "mass protection" option that he concedes could have been seen as "mass surveillance" or "wholesale spying", but that, and this is the important bit, he says it never actually went ahead.

Mr Key has revealed that after two major cyber-attacks on New Zealand companies, in late 2011 and early 2012, the GCSB stared to look at options with the help of partner agencies like the NSA.

But Mr Key says this idea never got past the business case stage because he deemed it too invasive.

This was before the Snowden leaks, and Mr Key says the fact he said no is why he has been able to be so resolute that there was no mass spying on Kiwis.

Mr Key believes that Snowden and Mr Greenwald have presentation slides, documents and wiring diagrams relating to the mass protection/surveillance option, but says they are missing the crucial fact that it never went ahead.

Mr Key has promised to declassify and release top-secret documents proving this, either tomorrow or the next day, getting in ahead of Dotcom and Mr Greenwald.

Firstly, I welcome this release. The more we know about what our spies are doing in our name, the better. And if they planned a panopticon, we need to know, so we can sack everyone responsible and never let them work in a public service role ever again.

At the same time, it should make all of us uncomfortable for what it reveals. As the SIS's Security in the Government Sector manual makes clear, information is supposed to be classified only for valid reasons of national security. Looking at similar NSA documents, the information Key wants to release is likely classified SECRET or TOP SECRET. That means its release would cause "serious" or "exceptionally grave" damage to security or intelligence operations (see p. 55 - 58). You and I may not agree with those operations, or their idea of "national security", but Key and the GCSB supposedly do - and those concerns don't disappear simply because the PM decides it would be politically useful to release. Unless of course in their eyes, "national security" means "National's security".

Its worth remembering that Key and his office are already under investigation by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security for politically-motivated declassification decisions. I think this proves the case. It also shows that our "national security" apparatus is politicised and rotten to the core. Time to shut it down.

Finally, consider this: what makes public servants pay attention to the classification system and its security theatre? Because they believe that its actually about "national security". The Prime Minister has just shown that its not, and is treating it like a joke. There's now no reason for anyone in the GCSB, NZDF, SIS or MFAT not to do the same. My PGP key and email address is in the sidebar, and I'll publish anything classified you send me. Let the leaks begin!

John Key lied to us about spying

Last year, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, John Key promised that he and GCSB chief executive Ian Fletcher would both resign if there had been NSA-style mass surveillance in New Zealand.

We may have to take him up on that promise.

The Nation this morning interviewed journalist Glenn Greenwald [video], who is here for Kim Dotcom's "moment of truth" on Monday. Greenwald has been working for the past few months on the New Zealand documents from the Snowden leak. While he's saving the real revelations for Monday night, he did make one thing clear: these documents show that Key was not telling the truth when he assured us that the GCSB was not conducting mass-surveillance in New Zealand. In other words, the GCSB has been spying on us.

But this isn't just a political scandal. If true, its a crime on a massive scale - because up until 26 September 2013, there was an absolutely unequivocal legal ban on any interception by the GCSB of New Zealanders. And yes, that includes metadata. If the GCSB has been engaged in anything like what the NSA has been doing, the entire organisation should go to jail (either for directly intercepting or disclosing communications, or as a party or co-conspirator in the above). And so should any politician who signed off on it.

(As for post September 2013, if Key wants to admit that he legalised previously unlawful behaviour, a) that's not what he told us at the time; and b) that just cements the case against him and his spies).

Sadly, we know how this will work: the Prime Minister will spin, deny and call it a "left-wing smear campaign", the Inspector-General of Intelligence and security will bring out the whitewash, and the police will refuse to prosecute even the clearest case of criminal wrongdoing by the powerful. Which means we will have to take matters into our own hands. If Greenwald backs up his claims with hard evidence on Monday, we will need to launch a private prosecution of the GCSB director and Prime Minister. Anyone want to make the arrest?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Protecting privatisation

Privatisation has a problem: democracy. Contracts written by one government can be cancelled by the next. This is obviously bad for the profits of government cronies. But in the UK, they've hit upon a solution: poison pill "penalty payments" for cancellation:

Taxpayers will face a £300m-£400m penalty if controversial probation privatisation contracts are cancelled after next May's general election under an "unprecedented" clause that guarantees bidders their expected profits over the 10-year life of the contract.

Labour is already committed to unpicking the justice ministry contracts to outsource probation services but will not now be able to do so without incurring the multimillion pound bill because of "poison pill" clauses written in by Chris Grayling's department.

The Ministry of Justice say they are only following Treasury guidance by including the clause, which raises the prospect that similar clauses are being included in other politically controversial contracts across Whitehall that are to be signed before next May's general election.

This is an obscene attempt to undermine the democratic process, and it exposes these contracts for what they are: a means to hand out money to government cronies. But fortunately there's a solution to them: legislation. The question is whether UK Labour has the spine to do that, or whether it will continue to collaborate in the privatisation agenda. And sadly, I think we all know what the answer will be...

Ending student fees is possible and affordable

Internet-Mana launched their free tertiary education policy today, promising exactly what it says on the label: an end to fees, universal student allowances, and eventual debt writeoffs. Its a clear point of difference with the other left parties. The Greens want to work towards all of the above, but make no specific commitments. Labour, full of former student politicians and reliant on students for its election volunteers, doesn't give a shit (of course they don't. It was Phil Goff who introduced fees and loans and means-tested student allowances in the first place).

So how much would this cost? Not that much:

Fee-free study would cost $568 million, and the implementation of a universal student allowance would cost $570m.

(Debt relief could cost a lot more, but it all depends on the book-value of debt that will never be repaid)

Which is less than National wants to give away in tax cuts, and less than Labour gave away in 2008. It won't break the bank to do it; the question, as always, is one of priorities. I can understand putting it behind child poverty (because that really is the moral challenge of our time), but behind forking money over to the rich? I would rather have a fully funded public education (and health, and welfare) system than give a single cent to them.

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