Snowden Docs: New Zealand Spying On Friendly Neighboring Countries For The NSA

More Snowden docs have been released, covering the extent of GCSB’s (New Zealand’s intelligence agency) spying on supposedly “friendly” island nations. As is par for the course for intelligence programs, the documents show massive bulk collections of data and communications — all of which are immediately shared with the other members of the “Five Eyes” club.

Since 2009, the Government Communications Security Bureau intelligence base at Waihopai has moved to “full-take collection”, indiscriminately intercepting Asia-Pacific communications and providing them en masse to the NSA through the controversial NSA intelligence system XKeyscore, which is used to monitor emails and internet browsing habits.

This sort of spying — while apparently “normal,” in light of previously-released documents — indicates many governments enjoy spying for spying’s sake, rather than for the justifications they often offer in defense of untargeted surveillance.

The documents, provided by US whistleblower whistleblower Edward Snowden, reveal that most of the targets are not security threats to New Zealand, as has been suggested by the Government.

Instead, the GCSB directs its spying against a surprising array of New Zealand’s friends, trading partners and close Pacific neighbours. These countries’ communications are supplied directly to the NSA and other Five Eyes agencies with little New Zealand oversight or decision-making, as a contribution to US worldwide surveillance.

New Zealand’s intelligence agency, along with Prime Minister John Key, have previously refused to acknowledge or deny the use of the NSA’s XKeyscore system. A short blurb from the obtained documents renders this Glomar null.


The wording indicates that GCSB is indeed using this system for its collections, which are then immediately accessible to the NSA. NSA analysts must first read through an online (“iLearn”) briefing on NZ law and answer a few questions correctly before they’re allowed to search the collection.

The collection itself is impressive. It contains phone calls, text messages, emails and social media interactions. In the parlance of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies, this is “full-take,” a far more intrusive form of surveillance than skimming metadata off the top.

Even though it’s purportedly an anti-terrorism tool, the surrounding friendly nations have given New Zealand little reason to spy on them. But that’s how the anti-terrorism game is played by spy agencies: everything from everyone, for as long as possible. What’s not legal to “look at” in one country can always be used by another. The built-in “protections” for each nation’s citizens are nearly useless, considering the breadth and depth of these untargeted collections. Incidental collections are a certainty, rather than an anomaly analysts should be wary of.

Whatever’s being collected had better be doing a bang-up job keeping terrorists at bay. Prime Minister John Key has openly stated that sending his own citizens off to die is foreign warzones is just paying Five Eyes membership dues.

In his strongest hint yet that the Cabinet will approve a deployment of troops to train Iraqis alongside Australians, Mr Key in an interview with the BBC drew heavily on New Zealand pulling its weight as part of “a club”.

“Ultimately are we going to say we are going to be part of a club like [we] are with Five Eyes intelligence?

“Even if the contribution is small – of course it will be proportional – there has to be some contribution,” he said.

“It is the price of the club.”

Of course, Key has also reassured New Zealand citizens that the GCSB isn’t spying on them, betting his job against that probability.

Asked if he and GCSB chief Ian Fletcher would resign if there were mass surveillance, he said yes.

“But the facts of life are it won’t happen.”

For that to happen, the GCSB would have to undertake illegal activity.

He clarified later saying “both” would resign if there was mass surveillance.

“If I wholesale blatantly flout the law as Prime Minister I’m never going to survive anyway.”

Key’s hedges make it almost impossible to hold him to his promise. Domestic surveillance has been confirmed, both by these documents and previous revelations. The interception points and untargeted dragnet make it inevitable that New Zealanders’ communications are being swept up indiscriminately. The problem is that this is likely legal. The only way to violate New Zealand’s surveillance laws (and hold PM Key to his promise) is to find proof that GCSB is intentionally targeting its countrymen. By making surveillance programs broad and untargeted, the GCSB can avoid violating the law while still collecting a great deal of domestic data and communications. Minimization comes into play post-collection, but there’s nothing built into the system to prevent — or even minimize — these “incidental” collections.

Whatever the GCSB offers in assurances about minimization should probably be ignored. It doesn’t maintain any control over the communications it grabs. The collection belongs to the NSA. GCSB analysts have to run queries through the American agency just to see what it’s gathered from its neighbors.

The documents show that when GCSB staff want to access communications intercepted at Waihopai, they have to log into NSA computer databases. Minutes of a June 2009 meeting at the NSA headquarters, where a GCSB officer was present, show how integrated the GCSB is into the NSA systems. The GCSB officer, manager of an intelligence analysis unit, told the meeting that 20 per cent of GCSB’s analytic workforce did not have accounts or access to key NSA databases.

Because the GCSB doesn’t control the database, it really can’t destroy anything it shouldn’t have access to. New Zealanders caught in this dragnet now “belong” to the NSA, which has very few minimization procedures for foreign collections — even if the actual “collection” utilized another agency and occurred under another set of laws. GCSB analysts may constrain themselves from searching or viewing New Zealanders’ communications, but it can’t promise to delete unlawfully-obtained “incidental” collections.

It works out this way: the New Zealand government will provide military support — including the deployment of troops — in exchange for whatever the NSA allows it to look at. It provides the intercepts, but the NSA enjoys the greatest share of its “partner’s” collection efforts. This hardly seems like an equitable exchange. And now New Zealand is going to be dealing with irritated neighboring countries and more than a few irate New Zealanders. And for what? A massive, untargeted collection that it doesn’t even control and which does very little to aid in the country’s anti-terrorism efforts.

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