Hard News by Russell Brown

I don't care that much

Somewhere, someone is mocking us: "New Zealand's government rocked back, parties split by dog control law." It sounds kind of daft, doesn't it? But the Greens - usually the most decorous about party discipline - were split by a last-minute defection in favour of National's amendment, leaving Jeanette Fitzsimons looking ineffectual and Labour ministers in what appears to be the government's position du jour: completely gobsmacked.

I confess, I've been struggling to work up any kind of feeling as tempers have flared and loyalties been strained over a proposal that didn't seem so controversial when it was first voiced amid the anguish of the attack on Carolina Anderson. I don't care that much, because - and I'm sorry if this shocks some people - I don't care that much about dogs.

I'm not even sure the law is really a good idea, but by gawd there's been some crap talked about it. Federated Farmers issued a release claiming that the SPCA had "publicly said" it opposed microchipping of all dogs, and this week National's Jacqui Dean issued a statement headed Dog tax a death sentence, blaming the recent flood of puppies at SPCA refuges on the prospect of the microchipping law.

In fact, the SPCA's animal welfare policy has long included the statement "The SPCA advocates the microchipping of all dogs" and if you take the time to visit its home page, you'll find the words: "Dog Microchipping. Forget the hype - read the facts in the Department of Internal Affairs information brochure." And the SPCA itself is blaming the puppy onslaught not on microchipping, but on people failing to have their dogs de-sexed.

But, perhaps inevitably, Sue Kedgley took the prize with this amusing bit of hysteria in Parliament:

We have to acknowledge that this is a surveillance technology—an Orwellian technology. As Tariana Turia said some time ago, it is dogs today, humans tomorrow. Actually, it is not even a case of it being humans tomorrow. In Mexico the Attorney-General has ordered that all of his 160 employees be microwaved—I mean microchipped, although microwaving might be next! He has ordered that his employees be fitted with a microchip that is the size of a grain of rice. Humans are also being microchipped in America. George Orwell warned about this. Let us realise that microchipping is a way of legitimising surveillance; it is Orwellian technology—dogs today, humans tomorrow.

As ever, Kedgley fails to distinguish between technology and application. Chipping dogs (and sometimes cats) is relatively common on either a compulsory or voluntary basis in a number of countries, but dogs are not humans. And until such time as we start, say, putting down homeless humans, it's bonkers to regard it as an inevitable precursor to the compulsory use of RFID in the human population.

The Mexican attorney general did have himself and 18 employees fitted with RFID implants in 2004, to allow access to secure areas and try and combat kidnapping. The story has since become a staple of the conspiracy websites that Kedgley appears to enjoy, and, of course, has grown in the telling. Note that the total number of employees involved was 18, not 160, as the prevalent urban myth has it. The RFID article in Wikipedia is quite helpful.

Kedgley presumably uses a mobile phone, and would probably be shocked at the extent to which that phone could be used to track her movements, without her even needing to make a call on it. The answer is not to ban cellular telephony, but to ensure that the technology cannot be used to infringe privacy in such a fashion.

RFID itself is quite a useful technology, but there are a number of social, political and technical issues to be worked through with its application, not only in human implants but in retail use, supply chain management, etc. I don't think that that process will be helped by MPs who believe everything they read on the conspiracy pages.