It could end with the resignation of a prime minister (although it almost certainly won’t) but that’s not what’s really at stake. What’s at stake is an international alliance built on controlling information for the purposes not of security, but of economic and political advantage. It’s an alliance that has ultimately come to view this control as an end in itself: a self-justifying hunger for total presence.

Over the past four weeks, both of the organisations that operate the vast majority of New Zealand’s newspapers published reports by Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher on the nation’s role within the Five Eyes network. These reports are based largely – though in Hager’s case not exclusively – on the analysis of documents obtained by Edward Snowden in mid-2013 and subsequently leaked to selected investigative journalists. Given that the currency of newspapers is the news of the day, these reports offer an unusually outdated snapshot not of the surveillance apparatus as it is, but as it was.

On one side, then, is our imperfect knowledge. On the other, the systematic obfuscation practiced by executive power in the exercise of these functions.

Take Prime Minister John Key’s solemn pledge – ahead of an August 2013 change in the law regulating the communications security bureau (GCSB) – that he would resign if his government were proven to engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders. According to reports by Hager and Gallagher, publicly corroborated by former GCSB director Bruce Ferguson, the bureau’s base in Waihopai has moved to ‘full-take collection’ of electronic communications in the South Pacific, which are then turned over wholesale to the NSA. ‘Full-take’ means both content and identifying information (metadata), in countries that include the Cook Islands and Niue – whose population has New Zealand citizenship. Faced with these claims, Key not only intimated that ‘collection’ is not the same as ‘surveillance’ (while refusing to admit to either), but questioned that words could even be found to refer transparently to the practices of our spooks. Pressed by radio journalist Guyon Espiner, he said this:

I don’t even know what you mean by mass collection. I have no clue. It is not a term I have ever used. It is not something that sits in something I see.

Thus, the prime minister. By contrast, the reports contained very circumstantial charges, building to an increasingly clear picture. Among New Zealand’s individual as opposed to mass targets – as evidenced by entries in the XKeyscore system supplied by the NSA, which operates as a sort of search engine for the collected data – are the governments and civil societies of friendly Pacific nations. An exemplary case is that of Solomon Islands anti-corruption campaigner Benjamin Afuga, whose information was extracted form the mass of data via search phrases such as ‘Forum Solomon Islands’, ‘FSII’ and ‘Benjamin Afuga’. But why? As Hager explained in a long interview with Selwyn Manning:

I do not believe that the New Zealand intelligence agencies are collecting information on Tonga because there is a burning foreign policy desire to have strong information and do the right things on Tonga. The reason that we spy on Tonga is the same reason we spy on Tuvalu, and the same reason we spy on Vanuatu, and that is, simply, that we have got we have got what’s called an area of responsibility in the Five Eyes alliance. They are just tokens of our allegiance to a US intelligence alliance. In other words the reason we spy on those countries literally – I’m really sure I’m right on this – the primary reason we do it is so that we can have an offering, a useful offering, at the table when we’re one of the Five Eyes intelligence partners.

Far from operating, as Key habitually claims in interviews, to protect the nation against external threats, then, the GCSB is principally tasked with spying on the South Pacific on behalf of Five Eyes, just as the Australian ASD does in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. It is allowed to do so by the vague objectives listed in the legislation – ‘national security’, ‘international relations’, ‘economic well-being’, all of which can be stretched to accommodate virtually anything – and by the poor mechanisms of oversight it provides for.

Especially tragicomic is the case of Tim Groser, current trade minister and former candidate for the chairmanship of the WTO, on whose behalf the GCSB turns out to have spied. Never mind that his bid was unsuccessful anyway: the more pertinent question is what the Bureau – and its political backers – thought they might achieve, other than risking a significant diplomatic backlash should their activities ever be discovered.

An extraordinarily clumsy attempt to argue for the legitimacy of the Groser operation by New Zealand Herald editorial writer John Roughan unwittingly highlights just how thin the justifications for such activities are. We spied on those other WTO candidates, says Roughan, on behalf not just of New Zealand but the world, for only Groser could be trusted to fight for a ‘fair global trading environment’. The sheer doublethinking gall involved in claiming that the nation pursues its national interest in the name of international fairness should be apparent to anyone but the most fanatical cheerleader of neoliberal economic doctrine.

The GCSB likely holds a document making such a case as part of its records for the operation. But it seems to me that spying of this kind, on trading partners and friendly nations, is almost a pathological reflex. We do it because we can: because we have the technical capability and a permissive enough legal and political framework. And so we treat XKeyscore as we might treat Google or Facebook, and the officials of other nations as we might treat co-workers or love rivals: everything and everyone is so easy to search for these days.

At the other end of the undersea cables, our American allies may not have much more use for the information than we do. But to them, too, it fits a purpose that is both technical and ideological: to funnel more and more data into the system, and thus – through a feedback loop – justify both the system itself and the political project that made it possible. This is what climate scientists in Antarctica, an anti-corruption campaigner in Honiara and the rivals of Tim Groser in Brazil and Indonesia have in common: a naïve expectation of privacy and failing to grasp the logic that turned them into surveillance targets.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Spies are what they are paranoid professional liars and deceivers who spy as far and wide as they technically can.
    The big question is how do we change the attitude of the general public, which is more concerned about one Kauri tree and a couple of talent show judges than the loss of their basic human right to privacy.
    Does New Zealand have to go through the experience of my former country with two totalitarian regimes and total surveillance by Gestapo and Stasi, which was child’s play compared to what New Zealand and the five eyes club are doing right now, before we wake up?
    It does not stop to amaze me how many don’t care for their basic human right of privacy because they think that they have nothing to hide.

  2. I wonder if the public of NZ really feel all this is an appropriate way to behave.

    We just watched the Blackcaps behave in an honorable decent fair and just manner and applauded them. At the same time we expressed our distaste for the Aussie cricketers.

    It seems kiwis have an innate sense of morality.

    I somehow doubt that our actions via the GCSB fit well with that sense of morality.

  3. there is no such thing as an honourable loss – whether of privacy or a game of cricket – whether it’s just not cricket or not, I say

  4. Your last two paragraphs mention two strands – a “permissive legal system” and “expectations of privacy”. Draw these strands together and you have the crucial spy issue for kiwis – can Government Communications Security Bureau spy on us without a warrant?

    I would take issue with you that people have a naieve expectation of privacy. In the post-Snowden era the opposite is true. Most kiwis now expect their communications will be intercepted. Conveniently under the new 2013 spy which anticipated these societal changes, most of those kiwis communications are likely not legally ” private”. And once they can be deemed not private almost all of the so called protections against domestic snooping are swept away.

    John Key gives us the repeated assurance that everything is legal. He may be right – it may well be legal to use Xkeyscore to get access to the mass surveillance data on most NZ’ers collected by the the NSA, using this loophole around the definition of “private communication”. But that is not what he told us in 2013. Back then he told the Cambell Live the new law was “all about foreign intelligence – nothing to do with New Zealanders”.

    The Inspector General is to investigate how the Government Communications Security Bureau is interpreting “private communication”

  5. “Conveniently under the new 2013 spy which anticipated these societal changes, most of those kiwis communications are likely not legally ” private”. And once they can be deemed not private almost all of the so called protections against domestic snooping are swept away.”

    I remember your post about this, and I’m not sure I agree that the Act doesn’t consider them private (although you make an interesting argument). It’s also worth pointing out that Hager doesn’t believe that New Zealanders residing in the country (as opposed to elsewhere the Pacific) are subject to mass surveillance – see the Manning interview I linked to in the post.

  6. The Law Society Legislation Advisory Committee and the Law Commission all said the definition is flawed and not longer provides sufficient protection against interception. That was before the Snowden revelations which have substantially lessened expectations of privacy – confirmed by every opinion poll I have seen. Ask yourself do you expect your emails and other internet use to be intercepted, not necessarily by the GCSB but by any other party? Then ask is that a reasonable stance to take given current societal attitudes? If the answer to both is YES – then that communication is likely not private.

    As for the no mass surveillance within NZ argument that misses the point. The GCSB does not have to undertake mass surveillance itself if the NSA and other Five Eyes partners are doing it for them. What matters are the legal restraints on GCSB getting access to that data on kiwis. If GCSB can legally declare the data collected on a kiwi target to be not private then Xkeyscore opens up searching of that data without a warrant.

    Whether the IGIS can throw any light on how this definition is being used operationally remains to be seen. But the fact she has agreed to inquire suggests this is more than an “interesting argument” ?

    1. “if the NSA and other Five Eyes partners are doing it for them.”

      Hager does not believe that the NSA or anyone else are currently carrying out this function. He could be wrong, but I consider him our foremost authority on these issues.

  7. “Hager does not believe that the NSA or anyone else are currently carrying out this function. ”

    That may well be true domestically but is largely irrelevant. Every company with a cable crossing into US territory including Australia’s Telstra is required to grant access to its data. The Southern Cross cable carries 90% of NZ’s internet traffic. This together with all the other interception capability of the NSA and Five Eyes as documented by Snowden = mass surveillance.

    The critical question remains — what are the legal restraints on GCSB access to NZ’ers data collected thus?

  8. This won’t “lead to the resignation of a prime minister”. You’re in lala land. The public of New Zealand don’t give a s4it. They care about money and jobs. The only excitement over this is amongst the echo chamber of security paranoids.

  9. At least in New Zealand there was a public debate about the Waihopai spying. Australia is engaged in exactly the same exercise through the spy base at Geraldton on the WA coast. The code name for the program is Stellar. Not a word of the revelations of wholesale data collection of Austrlians electronic communications was published in the media here. No parliamentary debate. A great cloud of silence passed over the land and as a result most Australians are sublimely unaware of what the government eavesdroppers are up to.

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