Thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen, Kazakhstan will always seem like a bit of a jokey, ramshackle kind of place. To that end, the Stuff story last week about the New Zealand courts’ recent compliance with the wishes of the Kazakh dictatorship was illustrated with a picture of Borat.
The Kazakh reality that’s depicted by Human Rights watch isn’t quite as funny:
Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion, and torture remains a serious problem. In 2014, authorities closed newspapers, jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protest, and fined or detained worshippers for practicing religion outside state controls. Government critics, including opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, remain in detention after unfair4 trials. Recently adopted changes to the criminal code, as well as a new law on trade unions, contain articles restricting fundamental freedoms and which are incompatible with international standards. Torture remai9ns common in places of detention and while some police officers faced charges, impunity remains the norm.
So what did Kazakhstan’s rulers want from New Zealand, and why are we giving it to them? The information in question included IP and email information about critics of the Kazakh government, contained in information uploaded to the Mega site, formerly owned by Kim Dotcom.
The High Court in Auckland yesterday ordered the website to hand over IP addresses, email addresses and other information of Mega users, suspected of hacking Kazakhstan’s government computer system in 2014… Kazakhstan said substantial numbers of sensitive government documents and emails were stolen during the hack.
Currently, Kazakhstan is suing the unidentified “John Does” hackers responsible, for civil damages in a New York court, and it needs the Mega information to identify the defendants. Previously, a court in California refused to supply Kazakhstan with the IP/email information it has now successfully got from New Zealand. The contents of the hack have been used in opposition newspapers based outside the country, to highlight the human rights conditions back at home under the dictatorship. The High Court ruling here seemed sympathetic to the regime’s plight:
The High Court ruling accepted that the information Kazakhstan wanted was “essential to identifying at least some of the ‘Does’ named as defendants in the complaint”. It ordered Mega to comply with the request to turn over IP addresses, email addresses, contact information, account information and payment information of certain users.
The safety of the defendants and their families did not seem to cut all that much ice with the High Court [Judgment (PDF)]:
“This information is neither particularly revealing nor particularly sensitive; it does not, for instance, carry the same degree of confidentiality as an individual’s email or phone records. Therefore, I am satisfied that the privacy interests in this case should not carry significant weight,” [Justice Moore] wrote.
Which raises an obvious question. If the information is so innocuous and so unhelpful, why has the dictatorship wanted it so badly that it has been willing to chase it in a court in California – and when that failed – to go to court again, in New Zealand? And shouldn’t we be erring (as California did) on the side of caution, given the track record of the regime that we’re helping out?
There is a wider issue here, to do with the ability (and willingness) of our courts to treat hacking ( in some circumstances) as a legitimate response to the control of the Internet by tyrants, and encryption as a legitimate defence of privacy. In January, the Kazakh regime gave itself a sweeping mandate to control the Internet, and to enact digital surveillance of every Kazakh citizen:
Starting on January 1, the country of Kazakhstan has formally declared war on privacy, encryption, and a secure Internet. All citizens of the country [will be required] to install a national, government-mandated security certificate allowing the interception of all encrypted citizen communications. In short, the country has decided that it would be a downright nifty idea to break HTTPS and SSL, essentially launching a “man in the middle” attack on every resident of the country…
Freedom House, meanwhile, ranks Kazakhstan poorly when it comes to Internet freedom, noting that the country’s war on religious extremists has resulted in an increase in Internet filters, a total blockade of Live Journal, intensified surveillance at cybercafes, and a spike in “physical assaults on bloggers and online journalists.”
This case in our High Court, therefore, is not occurring in a vacuum. Unfortunately, New Zealand has chosen to come down on the side of the regime. Meanwhile, other countries – including even the United States – are showing flickering signs of accepting that the authorities may just have to learn to live with encryption, given the direction the national debate about the tension between surveillance and privacy is now headed. After the very public battle between Apple and the FBI over the encrypted phone of a USA terrorist, some people in the FBI at least, seem to accept they now need to find ways of co-existing with encryption:
“Encryption is part of our lives,” said Keith Mularski, the FBI’s top cybercrime investigator in Pittsburgh, who takes a laissez faire view of encryption. Though he regularly encounters phones that he can’t break into — and tries to get around their security features when he can — Mularski said he understands that encryption is now a part of the Internet’s fabric and probably can’t be eliminated, even as it poses an obstacle for law enforcement.
If only our courts could arrive at the same conclusion. And if only they could tell tyrannical regimes when they come calling for our help, that encryption is their problem, and that they may need to embrace other, more democratic ways of coping with dissent.
Santigold & Solitude
In the current Werewolf, the young Christchurch writer Ana Avia-O’Connor has an interesting story about the rewards of being alone, in a world dominated by social media. It’s well worth checking out.
From a different angle, the New York singer/producer Santigold tackles the same subject of social media narcissism on “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself” the best cut from her new album 99c….
I really liked this recent exchange between Santigold and an interviewer from Straight magazine:
Question : A lot of the lyrics on this album, especially “Can’t Get Enough of Myself”, take a critical look at the narcissism of our times, which is perpetuated by social media. What do you make of it when someone like Kim Kardashian argues that her nude selfies are an expression of feminist empowerment?
Santigold : Yeah, I think one of the negative by-products of social media is the narcissism that it breeds. I think it’s also interesting how people need the attention of strangers and their approval so desperately to feel a sense of worth, and how comparing oneself or ones’ real life to the projected images of others’ projected selves and lives can cause people so much despair and anxiety. It’s twisted. I don’t really follow what Kim Kardashian says or does. I think it’s strange that so many people do.
In her mid 30s, Santigold became a mother. ‘Banshee on my shoulder/an’ I ain’t gon’ get no sleep tonight’ is, as the Straight interviewer suggests, a pretty solid description of what it can feel like when walking your baby back to sleep at 4 a.m. There’s also an interesting lyric on the “Chasing Shadows” track, about the fleeting/fickle rewards of creativity :
Maybe I will get it wrong, no patience for myself
Selling years of ideas ’til I’m old, an’ living on the shelf….
I give ’em my heart in words, will they remember me?
I’ll leave ’em alone and time’ll want to smother what I say
I round another year and wonder – did I go someplace ?
…. We race the globe
The shakers and the fools
We trouble, you know
You’ll find us where we fall, we chasing shadows