Edited text of a speech given by Thomas Beagle at the launch of What If – “an education and action campaign working to stop data collection and sharing by the NZ State and private corporations for the purposes of social control and exploitation, and working for community control of information resources for the benefit of all”.
The technocrats have a utopian view of our data driven future. As the NZ Data Futures Forum puts it, they plan to “unlock the latent value of our data assets and position us as a world leader in the trusted and inclusive use of shared data to deliver a prosperous society.”
- They promise that we’ll be healthier, with population wide tracking to predict and therefore prevent diseases.
- They promise that government services will be both cheaper and more effective through better targeting of those who need them.
- They promise that we’ll be wealthier, with businesses able to offer new and exciting products based on our individual needs.
Indeed, is there anything that government and business couldn’t do if they had enough data and some smart people to analyse it?
Now, this is going to require a lot of data. And when you’re collecting a lot of data you’ve got to make sure that it’s accurate.
One of the things that’s particularly important is making sure that we have the right person. There’s no point in targeting John Andrew Smith with a medical checkup when it’s actually John Adam Smith whose genetic analysis shows their predisposition to a particular condition.
Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone in the country had a single electronic identity, one that we could use as a digital key across all these systems to ensure that we had the right person?
And this is where RealMe comes in. It’s a joint venture between the Department of Internal Affairs and NZ Post and, 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.”
The sales pitch is aimed at making it easier for the citizen consumer. Get a RealMe account and access a wide range of critical services that require strong proof of identity such as govt agencies, the health system, banks, and so on.
It’s important to note that there are two sorts of RealMe accounts. You can get as many unverified accounts as you like – but if you want to use the more useful services you will need to get your account verified and your photo taken at an NZ Post shop. You’re only allowed one of these.
RealMe is of particular appeal to financial institutions because of their new responsibilities to identify their customers and report suspicious transactions to the government as a result of the Anti Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act. Kiwibank, the BNZ and TSB Bank are using RealMe, with more expected to follow, although uptake has been slower than expected.
RealMe itself doesn’t store any data about people, but it does enable two services that use it to share data if the person gives them permission. For example, if you apply for medical insurance, you can use RealMe to freely choose to give the insurer secure access to your medical records.
There’s not much more to RealMe, but there doesn’t have to be. It provides two vital components to enable data sharing on an ever larger scale – a key to identify a person, and a pipeline to share the data. It’s an important building block in the creation of our glorious shared data future.
Issues with RealMe
Sadly, utopia is not assured. Let’s look at some of the issues.
Firstly, data sharing. While the people who developed RealMe seem to have good intentions, I can’t help feeling that they seem rather naïve. It’s great that data sharing through the RealMe service is voluntary and done under the control of the user, but does anyone really believe that’s how it’s going to work?
If you want health insurance, you will be obliged to give them access to your medical records. Credit applications will demand access to your bank accounts. You could freely refuse – at the price of being turned down for what you’re applying for.
And at some point I can assure you that there will be a small law change allowing the IRD full access to whatever data they want through the RealMe service.
There are other agencies that also have the power to override our privacy choices. The Police, SIS and GCSB can all legally access the information in the systems that RealMe have so kindly linked together, and we’d never know that they’d done it.
Secondly, it seems that RealMe will inevitably evolve into a de facto digital identity card; the “papers please” of the internet age. As processes move online, everyone is going to need a RealMe account and opting out will not be an option.
But there is a deeper philosophical problem with having a single verified identity. Do we actually want to use the same identity for dealing with the government, banks, Trademe, and a variety of social media sites? Will there be increasing pressure to use our ‘official’ identity everywhere? I see important advantages in being able to present different faces to people – to the people we work with, our parents, our children, our friends, our various communities.
And, of course, RealMe has a big future. It’s going to be available whenever the government thinks up a new reason why it needs to track us and spy on us. We don’t just have to worry about what it’s being used for now, we have to worry what will be build on it in the future.
To think of just one example, something that worries governments and businesses alike is the inability to conclusively identify who did what online. It seems possible to me that in ten years’ time we’ll be obliged to connect to the internet using our RealMe identity.
With everything you do online linked back to your RealMe ID, the internet truly will be the greatest surveillance machine ever built.
However, it’s when you add large scale data collection and analysis that you realise how this technocratic utopian vision can all too easily become a dystopia.
The same data that can be used to target assistance to those who need it, can be used to penalise those who transgress. Has an algorithm decided you feeding your children too much junk food? Did you spend time helping at the local community centre when you should have been looking for a job? Our data shows you were out in the car when you said you were sick last Tuesday, just how sick were you?
Citizen, justify yourself!
RealMe is just one more component of the big data transformation of our society.
I don’t think that the big data juggernaut can be stopped. Every day the technology to watch, collate and analyse data is getting cheaper and more powerful. It’s the price of the modern internet and computer driven society.
And personally, I’m still enough of a utopian that I’m not even sure that we want to stop it.
But we know that people react differently when know they’re being watched. We know that people value their privacy and feel powerless when others know their secrets. Can freedom of expression survive in a surveillance state? Will dissent, so necessary in a democratic society, wither under the all seeing eye?
So while we can’t stop it, there is a very clear need to control it. To make sure that we get the benefits while not accidentally creating a society we don’t want to live in.
What can we do?
However I do believe that this is possible. We can’t control what foreign companies and governments do, but we can set limits on what our own government can do, and we can pass laws that control what New Zealand companies can do.
This isn’t going to be easy. We do have the Privacy Act, but the technocrats have the ear of government and they’ve already announced plans to repeal the Privacy Act and re-enact it in a form even more friendly towards data sharing. But even then, it’s not just privacy that we’re worried about, but power and control.
To stop this trend, to set up real protections, we’re going to have to persuade our fellow New Zealanders that we need them.
We have the power to decide what sort of country we want to live in. We can reject the surveillance society and the subsequent crushing of our democracy. I hope this meeting is another step on the way to doing so.