Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Is RealMe a threat to our liberty?

Posted on July 4, 2014

We've been watching the introduction of RealMe with some concern. While it appears that they have done some serious thinking around privacy, there are some real issues around unified online identities that have not been sufficiently discussed.

This introductory article talks about what RealMe is and then asks some questions about how it might be used.

 

What is RealMe?

RealMe is a government sponsored online identification service. In their own words: "RealMe lets you easily and securely prove your identity online, plus access lots of online services with a single username and password."

It's a renamed version of the iGovt scheme originally set up by the Department of Internal Affairs. it's now run by a combination of the Department of Internal Affairs and NZ Post (a state owned enterprise).  The major enabling legislation for RealMe is the Electronic Identity Verification Act (2012).

The aim is that your verified RealMe identity will provide enough assurance that you are who you say you are that governments and commercial organisations will be able to provide products and services online that require the most stringent forms of identification such as passports, bank accounts, student loans and so on.

It's of particular appeal to financial institutions because of their new responsibilities to identify who they're dealing with after the passing of the Anti Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act. Both the BNZ and TSB Bank are now using RealMe with others expected to follow. Here's the full list of organisations using it.

At the end of February 2013 there were 853,100 iGovt logins (although some people had more than one).

 

Implementing RealMe

We've heard that implementing RealMe within an organisation is both complex and expensive. There is a significant amount of software development that the organisation is required to do, plus RealMe does its own testing to ensure that standards have been met.

Ongoing costs are based on the number of transactions (typically new identifications, RealMe is not necessarily involved once the identity of the person is established the first time). RealMe refused to release details of the pricing, claiming it is commercially sensitive.

 

Privacy and data management.

There's no doubt that the people who created the system did it with the best of intentions and it seems they've taken privacy needs into account. One important point is that two organisations using RealMe can't share data about a person unless the person has explicitly giving them permission to do so.

However, we have to assume that this will not always be the case. It seems highly likely that at some point the IRD will get a law change to enforce access - we all want to make sure people aren't cheating the tax system, right? And it makes sense that companies might start insisting on you sharing information, in the same way that health insurance companies currently demand access to your health records. You can refuse but then they won't provide services to you.

It's also easy enough for the Police, SIS and GCSB to be able to use the powers granted by their respective laws to access any person's information across systems as well.

 

A digital identity card

It seems clear that RealMe is rapidly becoming a digital identity card. It's already not voluntary for a number of people who want to access some services such as Studylink. As more government departments and commercial organisations start requiring it, having a verified RealMe identity is rapidly going to become a requirement.

NZ and Australia both rejected the idea of a non-digital national identity card in the 1980s. There were significant public campaigns against them and the proposals were defeated. So far there's been no outcry against this new form of digital identity card.

Of course, there were different attitudes then. In those days the very idea of government departments sharing data about people was highly contentious due to fears that the government might snoop too much or would abuse its power. Now data sharing between govt departments is commonplace and expected. RealMe is going to enable more and better data sharing, with increased confidence about the identity of the people they're sharing information about.

 

Unified identity

But the bigger issue is - what does it mean to have one verified identity that's used for everything?

Do we actually want to use the same identity for dealing with the government, your bank, Trademe and a variety of social media sites? Will there be increasing pressure to use your 'official' identity everywhere? We see advantages in being able to present different faces to people - to the people you work with, your parents, your children, your friends, your community. Is this under threat?

We already know that the world has problems with governments over-surveilling people on the internet. We fear that this surveillance already has a chilling effect on democratic dissent. Will improving it by forcing use of a single identity and further enabling data matching be worth the gains?

 

The future

What does robust and pervasive online identification enable? How will these services be used in 5, 10 or 20 years time?

For example, one of the big problems with law on the internet is proving just who did something. You can trace a downloaded file to an IP address but you don't know which person there actually did the copyright infringing download. Or maybe you want to find out who anonymously published the suppressed name of the accused in a trial.

A government of the future might look at these problems and decide that internet use should be keyed to your RealMe identity, thus undermining anonymity on the internet. It wouldn't be a trivial task but it's also not impossible and would enable the government of the day to track everything you do on the internet. We don't believe that the government needs this power and we see this level of mass surveillance as a threat to our privacy and our democracy.

 

Conclusion

RealMe has some real advantages - verified identities will make it easier for people to access government and commercial services online, helping us realise some of the promises of the internet revolution. But we're concerned about measures that increase government power over people and we fear that RealMe might be one of those measures.

Over the next few months we're planning to explore some of the issues around RealMe. In particular, we want to answer the following two questions:

  • Is RealMe a threat to our liberty now or in the future?
  • If so, how can we mitigate it so that we get the benefits without the costs?

Your ideas and contributions would be welcome.

 

 

 

HDC Bill reported back by the Select Committee

Posted on May 27, 2014

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill has been reported back and the select committee has made a few changes.

Significant changes

The Bill has added the definition of IPAP (Internet Protocol Address Provider - roughly an internet service provider) from section 122A(1) of the Copyright Act and then in section 17(2A) gives the District Court the ability to order an IPAP to release the identity of an anonymous communicator to the court. Of course, this would only reveal the name of the person who owns the internet account that was used and not the name of the person who used it, so the utility of this will be limited.

The Approved Agency (still unnamed, still expected to be Netsafe) would be subject to the Ombudsmen Act, the Official Information Act and the Public Records Act in respect of the functions performed under the bill. This is a welcome change as it's important that any agency performing state functions is covered by the bills that help provide proper oversight.

There have also been minor changes allowing the courts to vary orders made previously, clearing up which teachers can apply on behalf of pupils, and allowing threats to be treated as possible grounds for an order to be made.

Safe harbour improvements

The major change has been to the section 20 Safe Harbour provisions of the Bill that were dumped into the previous version at the last minute.

The original proposal was terrible - content hosts (pretty well anyone who allows the public to submit comments such as on a blog or forum) would be protected from legal action if they removed material immediately after receiving a complaint. It was obvious that this would be abused by those trying to silence people who they disagreed with.

The good news is that some complaints will be changed from "takedown on notice" to "notice and notice". This means that upon receiving a complaint, the content host will forward it to the original author of the complained about material (i.e. the person who wrote the comment). If the author agrees or doesn't respond, the material will be taken down, but if they disagree with the complaint the material will be left up - and the content host will still be protected from legal action under the safe harbour.

However, this does not apply when the original author cannot be identified (or if the author either doesn't want to respond or can't respond within the 48 hour time limit). Indeed, the phrasing of the act reads as if content hosts must remove material when in reality they only need do so if they wish to be protected by the safe harbour provisions.

Disturbingly a number of other suggested improvements were not picked up by the select committee. In particular we supported the ideas that complainants should have to make their complaint a sworn statement and that complainants would have to have been harmed by the material themselves.

So while this is a significant improvement, we still fear that these provisions will be abused by serial complainers, internet busybodies and those who want to suppress their "online enemies" by any means possible.

What hasn't changed

What's more serious is what hasn't changed. You can read our articles and submissions to see our full critique of the Bill but there are three points we wish to mention.

Firstly, the Bill sets a different standard for the content of speech online and offline. While we do understand that online communications might require a different approach in available remedies, we firmly believe that the standard of speech should be the same. We note that the internet isn't only for "nice" speech, it's increasingly the place where we all exercise the freedom of expression guaranteed to us by the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

Secondly, rather than fixing the horribly broken section 19 - causing harm by posting digital communication - the penalties have been increased. This section completely fails to recognise that some harmful communications have real value to society. For example, the idea that someone might be fined or jailed because they harmed a politician by posting online proof that the politician was corrupt is just horrendous. We honestly believed that the lack of a public interest or BORA test was a mistake but it seems that the Select Committee really does want to criminalise all harmful online speech. This neutered and ineffectual internet is not one we wish to see.

Thirdly, we worry that the bill will be ineffectual where it might be needed most while being most effective where it's most problematic to civil liberties. Many of the example harms mentioned in the original Law Commission report would not be helped by this Bill - they happen overseas, or they happen too fast, or the people being harmed are just too scared to tell anyone anyway. The Approved Agency will be able to do a lot in the cases where anything can be done, but we're not convinced of the need for the more coercive elements of the Bill.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that some people are being harmed by online communications. There is definitely a good argument to be made that the government could do something useful to help those people. We're not convinced that the approach taken by the Law Commission and the Government is effective and we're quite sure that it includes a number of unreasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed to us all by the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

It seems inevitable that the Bill will be passed in its current form if there's time before Parliament closes for the elections. We can but hope that a future government will repeal it and have another go.

HDC Bill and criminalising free speech

Posted on February 1, 2014

As part of our ongoing look at elements of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill (general critique and safe harbours), we now turn to the new offence of causing harm by posting digital communication (section 19). This is a criminal offence and is not related to the rest of the bill with its 10 principles, Approved Agency and quick-fire District Court remedies. It's quite simple:

(1) A person commits an offence if:

  1. the person posts a digital communication with the intention that it cause harm to a victim; and
  2. posting the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim; and
  3. posting the communication causes harm to the victim.

"harm" is defined in the interpretation section as "serious emotional distress".

Unfortunately this new offence is actually very wide and may well capture many communications that are of immense value to society - or at least shouldn't be made illegal.

Let's consider the case where someone takes a photo of a politician receiving a bribe and, shocked at their corruption, posts that photo to the internet. This communication would:

  1. be posted with the intention of harming the victim (the prospect of facing criminal charges or being obliged to resign could be assumed to cause the victim distress).
  2. would cause harm to any reasonable person in the position of the victim (any reasonable person would not like having evidence of their criminal corruption exposed to the world).
  3. could be easily proved to have caused harm (serious emotional distress) to the victim.

The penalty? Up to 3 months in jail or a fine not exceeding $2000.

In section 19(2) the judge gets some guidelines about how to assess whether the communication causes harm, but nowhere is there the idea that some communications that cause harm might actually have some societal value or would otherwise come under freedom of expression. There are no available defences such as that the communication may be in the public interest, counts as fair comment, or exposes criminal wrongdoing.

And just in case you thought that whether the communication is true or not should matter, section 19(4)(a) clarifies that "...or otherwise communicates by means of a digital communication any information, whether truthful or untruthful, about the victim;"

This is obviously a terrible law and will have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression and public discourse in New Zealand. How will our journalists and citizen journalists be able to expose wrong doing when broadcasting it on electronic media such as the internet, radio or TV is a criminal act if it hurts the wrong-doer's feelings?

This law wouldn't be acceptable if it applied to speech in a newspaper, it's not acceptable online.

Section 19 isn't complete worthless - it also criminalises the communication of "intimate visual recordings" in an attempt to harm someone. This seems worth keeping but the parts of section 19 concerning speech need to be either removed or significantly modified to protect freedom of expression.

Safe harbours in HDC Bill are a threat to freedom of expression

Posted on November 21, 2013

The safe harbour provisions in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill are a serious threat to online freedom of speech in New Zealand.

How it works

Anyone can complain to an online content host (someone who has control over a website) that some material submitted by an external user on their site is unlawful, harmful or otherwise objectionable. The online content host must then make a choice:

  1. Remove the content and thereby qualify for immunity from civil or criminal action.
  2. Leave the content up and be exposed to civil or criminal liability.

The content host has to make its own determination about whether a piece of given content is unlawful (which may be very difficult when it comes to subjective issues such as defamation and impossible to determine when it concerns legal suppression), harmful or "otherwise objectionable".

Furthermore, there is:

  • No oversight of the process from any judicial or other agency.
  • No requirement for the content host to tell the person who originally posted the content that it has been deleted.
  • No provision for any appeal by the content host or the person who originally posted the material.
  • No penalty for people making false or unreasonable claims.

We can safely assume that most content hosts will tend to play it safe, especially if they're large corporates with risk-averse legal teams, and will take down material when requested. They have nothing to gain and plenty to lose by leaving complained about material online.

Serious ramifications for freedom of speech

Don't like what someone has said about you online? Send in a complaint and wait for it to be taken down.

This applies to comments on blogs, forums on auction sites, user-supplied content on news media sites, etc, etc. These are exactly the places where a lot of important speech occurs including discussions about politics and the issues of the day. The debates can often be heated, and some sites are well known for encouraging intemperate speech, but these discussions are becoming and increasingly important part of our national discourse.

This law will make it too easy for someone to stop arguing and start making complaints, thereby suppressing the freedom of expression of those they disagree with.

The jurisdiction problem

Of course, this will only apply to websites that are controlled by people who have a legal presence in New Zealand. Overseas websites will continue to maintain their own rules and ignore New Zealand law and standards of online behaviour.

Conclusion

As currently written, these safe harbour provisions are just a bad idea. They're too open to abuse and we believe they're more likely to be used to suppress acceptable speech than to eliminate harmful or "otherwise objectionable" speech. As a very minimum, the complaint should have to be approved by the Approved Agency referred to in the other parts of the Bill.

That said, the whole idea of removing "otherwise objectionable" speech is also quite worrying. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill already has an expansive set of rules about what sort of harmful speech shouldn't be allowed online and this "otherwise objectionable" seems to extend it even further. One of the principles we stand up for here is that civil liberties such as freedom of expression are as important online as they are offline, and this law goes far beyond anything in the offline world.

We hope to have more comment and analysis on other aspects of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill soon.

GCSB Bill – Oral Submission

Posted on July 3, 2013

Text of our oral submission to the Intelligence and Security Committee concerning the GCSB Bill.

Introduction

I represent Tech Liberty, we’re a group dedicated to defending civil liberties in the digital age.

We see many problems with this bill and the thinking that lies behind it, problems that we described in our written submission. Today I want to concentrate on just a few of those that are particularly central to our group’s reason for existing.

Submission: GCSB Bill

Posted on June 21, 2013

Full text of the Tech Liberty submission to the Intelligence & Security Committee concerning the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill.

Summary

Tech Liberty has deep concerns about the extent of the powers granted to the GCSB by this Bill, especially when combined with the proposed changes to the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act (2004) contained in the TICS Bill.

We do not believe that the GCSB should be spying on New Zealanders. We are particularly concerned with the Bill’s silence on the GCSB’s existing practice of collecting and analysing metadata.

We do not believe that the GCSB is the right agency to have oversight and control of New Zealand’s telecommunications infrastructure in the name of “cybersecurity”.

We do not believe that the Bill makes any significant improvement to the current woefully inadequate oversight procedures.

We submit that this Bill and the TICS Bill should both be rejected. Rather there needs to be a formal review of New Zealand’s domestic and foreign intelligence requirements.

Govt proposes GCSB control over NZ communications in new TICS Bill

Posted on May 8, 2013

The government has announced two new Bills for reforming the GCSB and expanding their powers. The first is the GCSB and Related Legislation Amendment Bill (PDF) and the second is the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill (PDF).

This article is a summary of the major parts of the TICS Bill.

The TICS Bill is a replacement for the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act 2004. This law forced communications providers (ISPs, telcos, data networks, etc) to provide "lawful intercept" capabilities so that the Police, SIS and GCSB could access communications once they had a suitable warrant. The new bill expands and clarifies these requirements.

However, the addition of the word "security" is the key to what has changed. The new bill now gives the GCSB sweeping powers of oversight and control over the design, deployment and operation of all data and telecommunications networks run by network providers in New Zealand. The stated reasons are to both protect New Zealand's infrastructure and to ensure that surveillance agencies can spy on traffic when required. As part of this, the GCSB will have the power to stop network providers from reselling overseas services that do not provide these capabilities.

Summary of major elements of the TICS Bill

Interception

From the Bill:

A network operator must ensure that every public telecommunications network that the operator owns, controls, or operates, and every telecommunications service that the operator provides in New Zealand, has full interception capability.

Note that the surveillance agencies still need to have a legally issued warrant (under the Search & Surveillance Act, NZ SIS Act, or GCSB Act) to actually intercept any communications and there are obligations to avoid capturing communications that are not covered by the warrant.

The new Bill splits communications providers into multiple classes, with small, wholesale and infrastructure providers having reduced obligations. Providers must either have a full intercept capability, to be "intercept ready", or to be "intercept accessible". Membership of these classes can be varied by direction of the Minister.

The Bill specifies that the law applies to companies whether based in New Zealand or overseas. It then goes on to give the Minister the power to ban the resale of an off-shore telecommunications service in New Zealand if it does not provide interception capabilities. This could stop the resale of foreign-hosted VPNs, instant message services, email, etc.

Finally, there is more detail about how intercepted data should be formatted and delivered (apparently this has caused problems under the existing law).

Encryption and decryption

Network operators must decrypt the intercepted communications if they have provided the encryption, but there is no obligation to do so if the encryption is provided by others.

What does this mean for providers such as Mega (file locker) or LastPass (password storage) who have a business model based on the fact that they supply a cloud product that uses encryption but have deliberately designed it so that they can not decrypt the files themselves? This gives users the assurance that they can trust them with their data. Will the government close them down unless they provide a backdoor into the system?

Network security

There is a major new role for the GCSB in overseeing the design and operation of commercially available data and voice communications networks.

The Bill says that network providers and the GCSB are to work co-operatively and collaboratively on identifying and addressing network risks. If they fail to cooperate sufficiently, the law provides for penalties of up to $500,000 with an additional $50,000 per day.

Network operators must notify the GCSB of any proposed decision, course of action or changes made by them in regards to purchases, network changes or ownership/control of the "specified security interest". This includes their network operations centre (NOC), lawful intercept equipment, customer databases, databases of user accounts, and "any place where data aggregates in large volumes".

The GCSB can also demand any other information about the security and interception capabilities of the network including copies of contracts, specifications, and so on. That the information is commercially sensitive or held in confidence is not a defense.

Compliance

All network operators will have to register themselves with the government. The register will be administered by the Police and available to the Police, SIS and GCSB.

The register will include the numbers of customers, names of responsible contact people within the organisation, the regions they operate in and the types of services they provide. Providers of infrastructure services (e.g. companies that provide fibre links but not the equipment for communicating over those links) will also have to give the names of their customers to the register. There are penalties for non-compliance.

The government can insist that communications providers must obtain secret-level security clearances for some of their staff. It does not say what will happen if none of the technical staff qualify for a security clearance.

Liability and protecting classified information

People who do any act in good faith under the new law will be protected from subsequent prosecution or lawsuits. i.e. the new law is superior to other NZ laws or existing contracts.

There is also a provision that allows the courts to receive classified information in a court case in the absence of the defendant or the defendant's lawyer. This applies to information that might reveal details of the interception methods used by the surveillance agency or is about particular operations in relation to any of the functions of the surveillance agency, or is provided as secret information from the surveillance agencies of another country. It can also be used if that disclosure would prejudice security of NZ, prejudice the maintenance of law, or endanger the safety of any person. The judge in the case can appoint someone with an appropriate security clearance to represent the interests of the defendant for these parts of the trial.

Analysis and comment

The new TICS Bill is a major expansion of government power over the internet and other communications networks in New Zealand. While the existing TICA Act already mandated the provision of lawful intercept capabilities, handing over final control of network design and operation to the GCSB in the name of "security" seems incredibly wide and open ended.

Adding an additional level of government bureaucracy to the design and operation of these systems would appear to be a fairly significant hindrance to the ability of network operators to run their businesses.

There also must be concern about the GCSB being able to ban the resale of any services that do not provide lawful intercept capability. This means that New Zealanders will be prevented from protecting their communications from the New Zealand government - but equally they will be prevented from protecting their communications from foreign governments too. (We can safely assume that a foreign service that gives access to the NZ govt will also provide it to others.) These rules could wipe out businesses such as file lockers and password stores that rely on providing secure storage to their users.

One must ask where the justification for this expansion of power is coming from. Has New Zealand already been materially affected by attacks on our communications infrastructure? It seems clear that while the GCSB may not be that competent at exercising the powers they already have, they have done a fine job of convincing the government that they can handle a lot more.

There are many other parts of concern and there will need to be more analysis of the interception capabilities in conjunction with the new GCSB bill. One that does stick out as particularly offensive to civil liberties are the provisions for convicting people based on secret evidence. How can you defend yourself fairly when you can't even find out the evidence presented against you?

We will be doing further work on analysing this bill and would welcome contributions, particularly from those within the industry who already have experience working with TICA requirements.

Useful links re the Law Commission’s Digital Harms report

Posted on September 10, 2012

A summary of articles and other information about the Law Commissions Harmful Digital Communications report (PDF) and the associated Communications (New Media) Bill (PDF).

Please send any updates or other useful links and we'll incorporate them. Last updated: 10/9/2012.

Tech Liberty

Lawyer Steven Price

Lawyer John Edwards

Stephen Bell at Computerworld

Mike O'Donnell from Trademe at Stuff

David Farrar at Kiwiblog

Chris Barton at NZ Herald

Media 3

Richard Boock at Stuff

Netsafe

InternetNZ

Police Minister Judith Collins

Law Commission – Harmful Digital Communications

Posted on August 14, 2012

The Law Commission has released Harmful Digital Communications (PDF) - the rushed report into the "adequacy of current sanctions and remedies". According to the summary they are proposing:

  1. The creation of a new criminal offence that targets digital communications which are "grossly offensive or of an indence, obscene or menacing character and which cause harm". Harm is said to include physical fear, humiliation, mental and emotional distress.
  2. The establishment of a Communications Tribunal that will be able to respond to complaints and provide "speedy, efficient and cheap access to remedies such as takeown orders and cease & desist notices." It is also envisioned that Netsafe would take a larger role in being a first port of call for people seeking help.
  3. Amendments to the Harassment Act, Human Rights Act, Privacy Act and Crimes Act to ensure that the provisions of these laws can be applied to digital communications.
  4. New requirements for NZ schools to work harder at stopping bullying of all kinds.

The last two of these seem innocuous so our response will concentrate on the first two.

New "digital communications" offence

While it is undoubtedly true that the internet has allowed people to be nasty to each other on a wider scale than before, we are still not convinced that new laws are needed.

This is especially true when the Commission believes that the law should forbid offensive speech that has only got as far as causing someone "significant emotional distress", a rather low bar when adolescents or other excitable people are involved. (The Commission acknowledges that this goes beyond the current bounds of NZ criminal and civil law.)

We are also concerned when it is proposed to make something illegal on the internet that wouldn't be illegal if it was published in some other way. Does it really make sense that the same message might be legal on a billboard in the middle of Auckland but illegal if it was then posted to the Trademe Forums? As we say in our founding principles, "We believe that our civil liberties don't just disappear when using the internet."

It seems like that the new law will mainly be used as just another threat/weapon by people already engaged in internet battles.

All in all, we view this proposed new law with suspicion and fear that it will limit freedom of expression and cause more problems than it solves.

Establishment of a Communications Tribunal

It is always a concern when a new body with the power to censor is created, epecially when it is envisioned that it should be "speedy, efficient and cheap". When you realise that it's going to be tasked with censoring communications on the global internet, you have to wonder just what they were thinking.

Even reading the summary paper you get the feeling that the Law Commission doesn't think the Communications Tribunal is going to do much good, citing problems with identifying people and establishing jurisdiction overseas. Obviously it's only really going to have jurisdiction in New Zealand and this is just going to drive people's nastiness offshore.

Furthermore, the Tribunal will consist of one of a number of selected District Court judges, and they're going to have the power to order ISPs and web administrators to take down content. This can be significantly more difficult than it sounds and seems like a significant threat to freedom of expression, especially in those cases where the original author cannot be found therefore cannot defend themselves.

The Communications Tribunal seems to be a "at least we tried" measure, doomed to failure in all but a very narrow range of cases. We question whether it is worth doing at all.


We look forward to reading the full report and the proposed legislation and giving a fuller response when this is available.

Dissent, the internet and freedom

Posted on August 23, 2010

Tech Liberty was formed because a group of us were concerned that governments were ignoring traditional civil liberties when it came to new technology. The New Zealand government had recently passed a digital copyright law that would see people punished without due process and were secretly introducing a new internet censorship regime. We decided that we needed to stick up for the civil liberties that underpin our democracy and keep our society healthy.

A recent article by Rob Weir does a good job of articulating what drives us. In How to Crush Dissent, he compares distributing information on the internet to the samizdat underground presses in the Eastern Bloc. He fears that our current anarchic level of information freedom could be temporary: