Cause for concern over US email spying

Surveillance of billions of people's online communications is not just skimming, but deep digging, says a New Zealand author who has written about spying by the GCSB.

The international intelligence community is in turmoil after a US contractor leaked documents revealing surveillance systems, named Prism, used by the American National Security Agency.

This has led to claims that the NSA may have been free to access New Zealanders' emails and internet search data, and those of other non-US citizens, for several years. Internet companies have denied giving the US access to information.

Wellington shares intelligence with the US, as well as Britain and Canada, but the government is facing awkward questions about the surveillance programme that Washington says is aimed primarily at foreigners.

Author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager, speaking to Radio New Zealand this morning, said it was a level of intrusion never seen before.

"This is intrusion far beyond a generation ago listening to someone's telephone," he said.

"Let's not think this is skimming, this is actually deeply digging into the whole citizenry."

He said billions of people's online communications were being captured and monitored for patterns, and it was not necessary.

"Police forces have done a very good job without this technique," he told RNZ.

"If you say you need to spy into every life to the deepest level all the time, every where, so you can catch the occasional criminal, that is the mentality of the Soviet Bloc."

He said it was not the way to run a democratic or free society, and that whistleblower Edward Snowden had put himself on the map for speaking out.

New Zealand spies did not use their United States counterparts to circumvent the law here, Prime Minister John Key said.

Key said New Zealand intelligence agencies did share information with their international counterparts, but he did not usually know how they gathered that information.

"Sometimes I might know, sometimes I wouldn't know," he told TV3's Firstline programme today.

However, he said New Zealand agencies did not use the international connections to bypass the law, he said.

Key said he could "absolutely" guarantee that.

It was "rightfully so" that Snowden had the full force of the law in the US come down on him as a result of his leaks.

Despite the PM's assurances, there is concern about what is happening from some involved in the telecommuniations industry.

''This is something New Zealanders should be very concerned about because even in a democratic country like our, things can go badly wrong,'' information technology and telecommunications lawyer Michael Wigley said.

''This is about Government powers that need to be there but it's about striking the balance between civil liberties and dealing with the threat of terrorism.''

Wigley, principal at Wigley and Co law firm, said while the 'spin' from officials may suggest the US isn't actually listening in on phone calls in New Zealand, the information gathered about what calls are made, when and for how long, can be analysed to collect significant details.

''And what about international phone calls involving New Zealand? No mention has been made of what is occurring there,'' Wigley said.

He added that the GCSB is conveniently able to say it has pulled back from surveillance while the law is clarified but ''importantly, they might have been doing it in the past and they may do so again in the future.''

Another point to note, he said, is that the agency has said it has not been involved in any reciprocal information sharing but that doesn't rule out non-reciprocal information sharing.

''The GCSB could take steps to reassure New Zealanders. They have confidentiality and privacy obligations but they can say a lot more than they have chosen to. That's of concern.''

Fairfax Media