Andrea Vance: Chris Finlayson, stop fear-mongering and go 'dark' yourself

Back in the 1990s a National minster became intrigued by "The Internet".

Andrea Vance ONE Voice Source: 1 NEWS

One Friday, he told his staffer to: "Print it off over the weekend. I want to have a read of it".

I'll spare his blushes by not naming him. But a couple of events this week reminded me of the story - and why politicians should stay away from technology. Or at least take expert advice.

Revenue Minister Todd McLay announced his Netflix tax on Monday - as was well signalled. Consumers will have to pay GST on things like ebooks and ITunes.

That sounds simple - but uh-uh. Not to get too technical, Internet NZ have pointed out their detection methods are flawed and clumsy. It will be impossible for retailers to accurately determine if someone lives in New Zealand.

Buried in the small print is also a fine of $25,000 for those using virtual private networks (VPNs) to evade GST. VPNs pretend your computer is overseas - lots of Kiwis use the trick to access Netflix US content. That will remain legal - leaving a gaping loophole and a nightmare for Inland Revenue.

Then, in the wake of the Paris bombings, Prime Minister John Key and his security services minister Chris Finlayson began raising concerns about what they call "dark communications".

That's just hyperbole designed to grab headlines. What they were actually talking about is encryption - more specially end-to-end encryption.

It's a very safe way of communicating used by tens of millions of citizens. If you chat using What's App or IMessage on your phone, then you've used it.

In fact, encryption makes the world go around. Banks use it - that's how you do your online banking, or get cash from the ATM. Book your airline tickets. Or buy something from an online shop.

Finlayson and Key might also have been talking about TOR (it allows you to browse the internet anonymously). There's no doubt nefarious types - drug pushers, weapons dealers, paedophiles and terrorists - use it. But it's also an important and safe tool for human rights activists in oppressive regimes, whistleblowers, privacy campaigners, lawyers and journalists.

Now, the NZ ministers didn't invent these fears all on their own. Others in the Five Eyes surveillance alliance - particularly the FBI and GCHQ - have been agitating about E2EE for some time. They want companies like Apple to build a backdoor in their software so they can be monitored.

It's been claimed that the Paris jihadis must have been using encrypted messaging services to plan their attacks because intelligence agencies didn't pick up any chatter. But much has already been misreported about the terrorists, such as they were using a popular gaming network to talk.

But this war on encryption pre-dates the weekend's atrocities. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, British PM David Cameron shamefully vowed to shut down these "safe spaces" on the internet.

It should be no surprise. Politicians regularly prey on the fear and tensions that ratchet up after a terror attack (and failures by intelligence agencies), using it to introduce more draconian controls.

The UK wants to introduce troubling legislation, nicknamed a Snoopers Charter. New Zealand is in the middle of a review of its spy agencies, with competing interests of privacy and greater oversight versus extended surveillance powers.

But it's important to remember that New Zealand is not France, nor England. Both are closer to Islamic State's reach and have been more actively involved in the battle to bring it down. There are long-standing simmering tensions within its Muslim community. Paris' banlieues, and Belgium's Molenbeek are concrete concentrations of poverty and misery - incubators for dissent.

And before we go cracking down on private messaging networks, it's important to remember the surveillance agencies now reap what they sow. The popularity of these Apps soared as the world learned about intrusive bulk collection of our communications.

A favourite trick of politicians to avoid uncomfortable questioning is to refuse to speak until the outcome of a review of a report or review.

And so, right back-atcha Mr Finlayson. If you are considering banning encrypted message or extending the surveillance powers of the GCSB or SIS, stop fear-mongering and go "dark" yourself - at least until the spy review is finished.