Spy scandal - what we know and what we don't

ON GUARD: Police are pictured outside the GCSB's Waihopai spy base during a January protest.
ON GUARD: Police are pictured outside the GCSB's Waihopai spy base during a January protest.

It's hard to imagine, but New Zealand's home-grown spying scandal pre-dates the explosive disclosures by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

He'll beam a video message into the Auckland Town Hall tonight to explain exactly what the vast cache of classified documents taken from the National Security Agency mean for New Zealand.

But even before the 31-year-old analyst fled Hawaii for Hong Kong last June, in possession of information that would rock the world order, Kiwi spies were embroiled in a surveillance row of their own making.

Digging by Kim Dotcom's legal team set off reverberations that led to the Government Communications Security Bureau admitting it unlawfully snooped on the tech mogul, and his internet piracy co-accused Bram van der Kolk.

An internal investigation found dozens more Kiwis were subject to illegal surveillance over a decade.

Two months after that review - known as the Kitteridge report - was leaked, allegations from the Snowden files began to drip feed out, implicating the GCSB in the global spying scandal through its membership of the electronic eavesdropping alliance Five Eyes.

Here's what we already know - and what we don't:

* GCSB agents were regularly schooled by the NSA on how to use surveillance software, including the controversial X-Keyscore programme. The data-retrieval system tracks and harvests communications and internet searches on a global scale - but its true capabilities are still unclear. Prime Minister John Key has repeatedly refused to say if the GCSB has access to it.

* According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the recipients of Snowden's ultra-secret material, the GCSB were also given access to "Homing Pigeon." This can monitor communications sent on passenger jets to be monitored while in the air.

* Agents from the Five Eyes nations - the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - met regularly around the world at "Signal Development" conferences to share tactics and swap tips. At one conference in 2011, an  NSA slide presentation said its aim was to "Collect it All. Process it All. Exploit it All. Partner it All. Sniff it All. Know it All."

* In 2012, at another closed-door conference, GCSB agents were briefed by counterparts from the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a unit of the British signals intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).  A slide-show presentation, called The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations, outlined sex and dirty tricks cyber operations used by JTRIG. They conducted "honey traps", sent computer viruses, deleted the online presence of targets and engaged in cyber-attacks on the "hacktivist" collective Anonymous. The presentation outlined tactics to destroy the reputation of targets - including political activists and private companies - online.  Another  JTRIG tool, called AMBASSADORS RECEPTION, involved sending a virus to someone's computer to stop it functioning. The tricks had been used against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

* Australia's intelligence agencies requested NSA help in tracking citizens suspected to be involved with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Kiwi Darryl Jones was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in November 2013. Key has admitted the GCSB monitored Jones, but did not share information which directly led to his death to the US.

* The US has funded the GCHQ's "doughnut" base (around $200m over three years) and the vast document caches shows the American administration expected value for its money. "GCHQ must pull its weight and be seen to pull its weight," a GCHQ strategy briefing, disclosed in August 2013, states.  Key has refused to say if the GCSB has received any money  or resources from the US.

* In October, Australia was drawn into a diplomatic row  when the Snowden files blew open its covert monitoring of the cell phone calls of Indonesia president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife Kristiani Herawati and government officials. Australian embassies and diplomatic posts across Asia were also used as interception points for communications, as far back as the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference. Earlier that month, it had been revealed the NSA was intercepting phone calls made and received by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Greenwald's reporting also revealed internet data from Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto was intercepted.

* An April 2013 document also showed Canada set up spying posts in 20 "high priority" locations across the world on behalf of the NSA. The briefing notes show Canada was exploiting its benign international image to covertly amass huge amounts of information.

* But despite all of New Zealand's Five Eyes partners being enmeshed in the global espionage network, Key will not be drawn on the GCSB's role. This includes refusing to deal with fevered speculation that New Zealand has spied on its Pacific Island neighbours. The documents - as revealed in Greenwald's book No Place to Hide - do show the Kiwi agency was privy to diplomatic espionage by other Five Eyes agencies.

* The GCSB was gearing up for mass surveillance, and enlisted the help of the US, even while its unlawful spying activities came to light. Key put a plan to boost its capability for wholesale snooping in March. But, in the face of repeated questioning about mass surveillance last year as the country debated new spying laws, the Government did not reveal this to the public. Key says there was no need because it was just an idea.

Greenwald also says the GCSB has contributed large amounts  of metadata about New Zealanders to the Five Eyes programme. And he says the NSA documents - which he will reveal in full tonight - showed "phase one" of the proposed GCSB programme, which involved tapping into the underwater internet Southern Cross cable was already complete. Phase two -  indiscriminately "sweeping up" large amounts of metadata - needed a law change. Key said this morning the cable was never tinkered with, although he does not deny US spies come to New Zealand. Key says there has never been mass surveillance of Kiwis, but critics argue legislation passed last year - the Government Communications Security Bureau Act and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill - open the door to it in the future.