The Snowden files: What did we learn?

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The much-anticipated Snowden documents are finally out there, with the fugitive whistle-blower explaining their contents by videolink at a 'Moment of Truth' event in Auckland last night. Andrea Vance examines what the fugitive whistle-blower revealed about New Zealand's spying.

So, what did Edward Snowden say last night?

As a National Security Agency infrastructure analyst based in Hawaii, up until June 2013, Snowden says he regularly viewed the content and metadata of the private communications of New Zealanders. He was "the eye" in Hawaii. This information was available not just to his NSA colleagues, but counterparts in the intelligence agencies of Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (the Five Eyes alliance).  It was available to him through a contentious programme known as X-KEYSCORE. He says there is "no question" that this amounts to mass surveillance. Kiwis were subject to it, the GCSB (and by implication the Government) was party to, and a contributor to, X-KEYSCORE.

X-KEYSCORE, I've heard of that. How does it work?

Snowden says there is a network of NSA sensors - or cable taps - positioned around the world, including one in New Zealand. He says X-KEYSCORE allowed analysts like him to carry out a search based on an email.

"Let's say I want to read [Prime Minister] John Key's emails. I enter his email address and it sends that search to every one of these sensor networks around the world and they search their local data base of metadata and content," he said.

He says all of the content that passes through the sensor is held for "about three to five days" although can go back further.

"So, I can see what book you looked at at last week. I can see who you talked to. I can see who your friends on Facebook are. I can see the text messages you send, I can read the emails. I can send things called fingerprints that allow me to track where you've been online, who you are talking to, even if you are using anonymizing technology."

The communications of Kiwis caught by X-KEYSCORE were protected only by a "checkbox" - which the analyst could choose, or not, to tick. Specifically, Snowden says the GCSB not only uses X-KEYSCORE, but "they have expanded it, they have contributed to its development, they have proposed algorithms and the sort of fingerprints that are allowed to track people and targets."

Wait, so we are talking about the content of my communications?

Yes. Snowden was very specific about this - "no question about it." Metadata is the record of communications - the timing of a phone call, the recipient of an email.

Snowden said: "There is not just metadata although ... metadata is extraordinarily intrusive. As an analyst I would prefer to be looking at metadata than looking at content because it is quicker and easier and it doesn't lie. If I'm listening to your phonecall you talk around things, use codewards."

But PM John Key says there is no mass surveillance, and he's promised to resign if it went on?

He did. Key declassified intelligence documents last night which he says prove the GCSB was looking at implementing a cable tap programme on the Southern Cross cable. The plan would have allowed surveillance of all traffic on the cable. But he stopped it at the 11th hour. Instead of the planned "Project Speargun" the GCSB got "Cortex", a "bespoke" program that intercepts email traffic to particular companies - not wholesale interception on the cable. Southern Cross boss Anthony Briscoe issued a statement saying the interception didn't happen.

"I can tell you quite categorically there is no facility by the NSA, the GCSB or anyone else on the Southern Cross cable network ... It is a physical impossibility to do it without us knowing," Briscoe said.

So what does Snowden say to that?

He accuses the New Zealand Government of distraction and distortion and said it is a "false statement" to say Kiwis are not subject to mass surveillance. Key, he points out, is conflating cyber protection and mass surveillance, and that the use of X KEYSCORE has nothing to do with Speargun or Cortex.

"I think what is happening is a careful parsing of words," he said.

"There are actually NSA facilities in New Zealand that the GCSB is aware of, and that means the Prime Minister is aware of, and one of them is in Auckland and another one is in the north of the country."

There are no details yet on exactly where, although the social media community is speculating he is talking about Takapuna, or perhaps Waihopai.

It's extremely important to note that Key does not deny the GCSB - the country's foreign spy agency - uses XKeyscore and instead refuses to talk about it. To this Snowden said: "To this day he has said 'I won't talk about this because it is related to foreign intelligence.' But is it related to foreign intelligence if it is collecting the communications of every man woman and child in the country of New Zealand?"

And what about the Southern Cross statement?

Snowden basically laughed this out of the room.

"We have seen over the last year the NSA has done this around the world ... so I would have to ask that gentleman what makes your company unique, out of every telecommunications provider in the world, that you would know when the GCSB, when the NSA are tapping your lines when no-one else can?"

So what has all this got to do with the GSCB bill that was passed last year?

Everything, according to Snowden. Remember, at the time the GCSB was getting "Project Speargun" off the ground it was unlawful for it to snoop on New Zealanders. The New Zealand public believes the GCSB, and related TICS legislation, was born out of a legal muddle created by the 2012 illegal spying scandal. But the Snowden NSA documents - and the work done by journalist Glenn Greenwald - suggest that was a convenient smokescreen for "Project Speargun".

Phase one of Speargun - the tapping of the Southern Cross cable - was complete, according to the NSA slides. Phase two needed the law change. Snowden said last night: "It's very concerning when the NSA can propose a law to be put in place in New Zealand for the GCSB ... and the GCSB can start proposing programs that are unlawful at the time they are being considered and say 'hey pass a law to make this legal and we are going to go ahead and put this out there immediately'. Why are they even considering things that are not even legal?"

So what now?

It's over to Key to explain, or refute, what Snowden and Greenwald revealed. The Opposition parties will continue to make their case for an immediate and independent inquiry. A review of the the intelligence agencies, mandated by the new law, is due to get underway next year - where all this is certain to be rehashed.