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How it feels to know the state may be snooping through your sexual and social life

Hannah McGowan, who has lived on a benefit for most of the past 20 years, responds to the news that WINZ has been accessing the private communications of beneficiaries. 

Last month I outlined my situation as a welfare recipient and the ongoing effects of WINZ policies on my working and personal life. Essentially, if I have any kind of relationships beyond casual Tinder hook-ups I can lose my benefit entirely. If I spend a lot of time with someone, even if the relationship is not sexual in nature, they may be considered a viable income for myself and my children and expected to financially support us.

The sheer lack of logic and empathy around this policy keeps me awake at night. But now I have another terrifying prospect before me: spying. In May, Viv Rickard, the Ministry of Social Development’s deputy chief executive for service delivery, told RNZ that private communications had been used to build a part of a case exposing an undeclared relationship.  

How did MSD gain the authority to spy on the sexual and social activity of welfare recipients to the point of violating basic human rights? Why are people who might, at worst, be a little better off financially by having a relationship more of a threat to our country than white supremacists and millionaire tax evaders?

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The Christchurch shooter did not hide his presence from the world. Attempts to raise the alarm were completely ignored, despite people reporting his online behaviour and threats to authorities. Meanwhile, taxpayer dollars are being poured into trawling through private messages for personal, intimate photographs of people on welfare.

The Privacy Commissioner stated that collecting highly sensitive information from third party sources “may not be legal”. Under The Declaration Of Human Rights, spying on citizens is illegal. It is well known in advocacy circles that MSD and WINZ regularly breach NZBORA (New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). This means MSD are committing human rights violations against NZ citizens on a daily basis.

Imagine you receive a letter instructing you to come to a meeting. You come alone and walk into a stuffy little office. The people inside look you over with eyes of judgement and consideration. There is a tense atmosphere in the room. You have no idea why you are there. They show you private, intimate photos they have uplifted from your phone. Explicit photos. They question you. Interrogate you.

George Orwell might have created this scenario for Julia, heroine of his dystopian novel 1984, who refused to bow to authority. But this is not a chapter from his terrifying cautionary tale written in the 1940’s. It happened to one of us in 2019. This violation was carried out by MSD investigators, behaving precisely like characters from one of the most terrifying books ever written.

Still from the 1984 movie adaptation.

But this isn’t a made-up story, this is reality. It makes me wonder how many others have been taken into intimidating rooms to be broken by strangers and for how long. According to media reports, thousands of people have been victimised by systematic intrusions of privacy. Our country, our Government, has allowed this to happen.

Couples shouldn’t be entitled to a benefit if one is earning enough to cover them both comfortably. But that’s the only thing MSD needs to be looking for, and it doesn’t require creepy covert surveillance and trawling through hundreds of thousands of private, intimate images.

There are 306,512 NZ citizens on main benefits, 547,957 utilising supplementary assistance, and 449,831 people who access hardship assistance. MSD’s illegal activities prove that if you are part of the welfare system you are guilty until proven innocent and can forget about your human rights. It’s OK to be spied on without your knowledge.

I’m a beneficiary, so I’m not allowed a partner unless I magically get cured of my incurable disease or can find enough paid writing work to survive. If that’s not counterproductive enough, now if I text someone often, or am seen in a car with someone of the opposite sex, it could be used as evidence in an investigation against me. Because I am a beneficiary, I am more likely to be under surveillance for simply having friends.

People in poverty are already isolated from society. Being out of the workforce strips away daily interaction and poverty means you can’t afford to go out for a coffee and a scone with a friend. Many beneficiaries have no family to help out and friends can be few and far between when you can barely leave your bed.

The only thing that can make life bearable for me sometimes is a friendly face and a cuddle, but even that sliver of connection could land me in jail.

Work and Income NZ. Photo: Wikimedia

Working people and wealthy New Zealanders want a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the world. People on welfare are publicly condemned and despised, under represented in media and over represented in surveillance. Yet tax fraud costs the taxpayer FAR more than beneficiary fraud. Benefit fraud in 2015/2016 amounted to $24,174,000 while tax evasion over the same period was a staggering $1,200,000,000.

New Zealand invests an enormous amount of money into investigating a small group people with the least ability to pay it back. A much more powerful group are evading taxes that, if reclaimed, could improve our entire country. Let us hope these decisions were made in short-sighted ignorance and will be remedied swiftly now the truth is out in the open. If not, the only other logical conclusion is corruption.

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It’s time to quit these gross violations of human rights perpetrated on our poorest citizens. We’re not trying to rip anyone off. The existentialist author Camus wrote, “A loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” The right to a loving heart is a human right.

Our government needs to ensure surveillance resources are used to stop wealthy tax evaders and hate-filled terrorists instead of harassing impoverished beneficiaries. If we don’t take action to prevent state-sanctioned totalitarianism now everyone will find themselves in a dystopian hellscape.

You know now that Big Brother is watching us. How long until he starts watching you?


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