Thursday, March 05, 2015

Spying on our friends

The first GCSB-specific Snowden documents have been released, revealing that New Zealand spied on our Pacific friends and allies:

New Zealand's spies are targeting the entire email, phone and social media communications of the country's closest, friendliest and most vulnerable neighbours, according to documents supplied by United States fugitive and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Snowden's files reveal a heavy focus on "full-take collection" from the Pacific with nearly two dozen countries around the world targeted by our Government Communications Security Bureau.

Information from across the Pacific is collected by New Zealand's GCSB but sent onto the United States' National Security Agency to plug holes in its global spying network, the documents show.

From there, the documents show information collected by New Zealand is merged with data captured from across the world. It is then able to be accessed by the NSA's XKeyscore computer program through an online shopping-style interface, which allows searching of the world's communications.

John Key says that this is done for "really, really good reasons". Really? What's the "good reason" for spying on Samoa? On Tonga? On Nauru? These aren't terror states. We're not at war with them. These are our friends. If spying on our friends is "the price of the club", then its not a club we should be a member of.

But its not just a diplomatic disaster, there's also a big legal problem. If the GCSB is collecting full-take, then it is almost certainly collecting the private communications of New Zealanders, because there are lots of New Zealanders in these places, and lots of kiwis with family connections to them. And until 2013, this was unequivocally illegal - and given that these documents date from 2009 and 2011, it looks like the GCSB was breaking the law (again). In 2013, John Key changed the GCSB law to reduce protection for kiwis' communications. Thanks to that law change, information collected on New Zealanders overseas (or calling relatives overseas) as part of "full take" collection might be considered "incidentally obtained intelligence". It wouldn't be illegal to collect, but it "must not be retained or disclosed". If GCSB isn't screening this material before giving it to the Americans via XKEYSCORE, then they're breaking the law (again).

The vital question then is what safeguards the GCSB has in place to ensure that the communications of New Zealand persons collected from around the Pacific are not disclosed to the NSA in violation of s14(2)(b) Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003? And I think we deserve an answer to that. The material makes reference to NZSID7 (New Zealand Signals Intelligence Directive 7), the rules which GCSB operates under. Its time those were made public, so we can see whether our privacy is being properly protected.