Our very own spook success story?

22:13, Jun 12 2013

If you experience barely suppressed outrage when the United States Customs Service examines your iris and fingerprints as you pass through the transit lounge at Los Angeles airport, then uber-leaker Edward Snowden is probably your new hero.

The former CIA analyst and newly sacked Booz Allen Hamilton consultant blew the whistle last week on the US National Security Agency's digital spying systems, including the Prism and Boundless Informant programmes.

Exactly how these systems pry into the lives of anyone anywhere in the world is unclear. However, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others are all targeted. On one hand, that means the NSA must be sifting through a lot of gossip and cat photos in its efforts to find patterns of evil in cyberspace.

On the other, the documents show the information produced by these systems is running far ahead of public understanding, let alone political oversight and regulation, and gaining all the time.

The notion that personal privacy is a right rather than a privilege is being eroded at blinding speed.

Of course, much of the activity targeted by such surveillance is repugnant - human trafficking, drugs, illegal arms and criminal gangs. But the most powerful impetus for this invasion of privacy derives from the American response to terrorist threats.


This has produced what one of that country's foremost reporters on clandestine operations, Steve Coll, describes as "a bloated national-security state", which "contains far too many official secrets and far too many secret- keepers".

"More than a million people now hold top-secret clearances," he notes, although Snowden's ejection from the circle of trust reduces those numbers by one.

His disclosures have sparked deep anger in European capitals and created a new quandary for US Democrats, who cannot escape the fact that under their president, the pace of intrusive snooping has accelerated far beyond the level of activity they decried under George W Bush.

Closer to home, the timing is politically unhelpful for the New Zealand Government, which has escaped major political damage despite its principal electronic spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, unlawfully spying on New Zealand citizens.

The NSA disclosures coincide with patch-up legislation here which is designed not only to make that activity retrospectively acceptable, but to ensure it can happen in the future.

Apathy rather than acceptance has so far greeted those moves, but the more the privacy itch is scratched, the greater the danger of backlash.

Also potentially affected is one of the smart New Zealand companies at the forefront of the drive for innovation in "weightless exports" - the intelligence software company Wynyard Group.

An offshoot of Christchurch-based Jade Corporation, Wynyard is one of the rash of tech stocks seeking to list on the NZX in the near future, with a $70 million initial public offering which will release about $26m to accelerate its global growth plans.

Underlining the fact that much of this growth is expected in the US intelligence-gathering industry, the company last month opened offices in Arlington, Virginia, where the Central Intelligence Agency has its headquarters.

Most significantly, Wynyard's growth ambitions are founded on projected growth in sales of its newly developed intelligence software, which is attracting global interest from national security agencies, police forces and financial institutions.

Graphics in the Wynyard prospectus claim the firm's potential global market has grown from US$2.6 billion (NZ$3.3b) to US$5.3b in a single year between 2012 and 2013, with the market for intelligence software making up the lion's share of the increase - from US$1b to US$3.5b.

That's partly down to the fact its new products make it a player in new areas for the first time, but it also reflects the exponential growth in intelligence- gathering that has prompted such unease following Snowden's disclosures.

"To deal with these risks, entities need actionable intelligence and must be diligent in the collection of evidence and in the investigation of events," the Wynyard prospectus says. "Investment in software to provide this capability is not optional in the financial services, government and critical national infrastructure markets."

It boasts in the document of its intensely loyal culture and how heavily it vets those whom it employs. London- based executive Paul Stokes told me last year that the company was providing jobs for some of this country's smartest maths and computer science graduates.

"More and more of them are coming because they're driven by the idea they want to help catch bad guys," Stokes said at the time.

Wynyard has the makings of an extraordinary New Zealand success story, based on smart people doing work of great value and competing with some of the world's biggest players in the defence and security industries.

But there's one risk that's not in the prospectus that arguably should be: the risk that the good guys catching the bad guys won't always be seen as the good guys if their capacity to delve deeply into what should be private goes too far.