Spy bill passes into law amid wide criticism

20:16, Aug 21 2013
john key
JOHN KEY: Blames "Misinformation and conspiracy theories" for the public's fears over the GCSB bill.

In a landmark law change, the shadowy Government Communications Security Bureau has been given explicit powers to spy on New Zealanders when it is acting under warrant and for agencies including the Security Intelligence Service, police and defence.

Parliament ushered in the change last night by a vote of 61 votes to 59, almost a decade after it passed the 2003 act promising that the foreign intelligence gathering agency would not be used to spy on New Zealanders.

The Government has rejected criticism of the law change as scaremongering and believes it is on the right side of public opinion despite widespread protests. But a Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll yesterday revealed three-quarters of people have concerns about the change.

In belated recognition of public concern, Prime Minister John Key repeatedly promised yesterday that nothing in last night's law change allowed for wholesale spying on New Zealanders.

But he conceded the issue had "agitated and alarmed" some people and blamed "misinformation and conspiracy theories" by his opponents.

The legislation was hastily drafted after a top-secret review found the GCSB may have illegally spied on 85 people over a 10-year period.


That review was ordered in the wake of revelations the bureau illegally spied on German internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom.

The 2003 act clearly stated that the GCSB could not spy on New Zealanders. Mr Key repeated last night that the law change was designed only to fix that ambiguity. The law allowed the GCSB to do what it had been doing for the last decade - provide assistance to police, NZSIS and NZDF, he said. That assistance had been frozen since the question mark over its legality.

"If I could disclose some of the risks and threats from which our security services protect us, I think it would cut dead some of the more fanciful claims that I've heard lately from those who oppose this bill."

Mr Key has previously claimed New Zealanders were training in terrorist camps in Yemen. In Parliament yesterday, National MP Mark Mitchell claimed a satellite phone stolen by al Qaeda in Iraq had been used to make 14 phone calls to New Zealand.

The law change also allows the GCSB to help protect government organisations and important private sector entities from cyber-attack.

There would be times where a serious cyber intrusion was detected against a New Zealander and the GCSB would need to look at the content of someone's emails and the law would allow that, acting under a warrant.

Labour leader David Shearer accused the Government of ramming the legislation through against a backdrop of rising international disquiet over the intelligence agencies.

Labour would replace the legislation after a wide-ranging inquiry into the security agencies, he said.

Yesterday, Mr Key used his speech to offer assurances and spell out how the GCSB would operate:

There would be no "wholesale spying" on New Zealanders.

The GCSB would need a warrant from the independent commissioner of security warrants, and the prime minister, before it could intercept a New Zealander's communications. There would be a two-step process for warrants, requiring the GCSB to go back to the prime minister for a new one to access the content of a person's emails, only where the content was relevant to a significant threat.

GCSB would be required to have the consent of the New Zealander involved, unless there was good reason not to.

The legislation also allowed for a review of the intelligence agencies in 2015 and every five to seven years after that.

The GCSB would also be required to disclose how many times it had assisted other agencies and how many warrants and authorisations it had been issued.


Leading academic Dame Anne Salmond has accused Attorney-General Chris Finlayson of "gutter politics" after he criticised her opposition to the spying bill as "shrill and unprofessional".

During debate on the bill's third reading yesterday, Mr Finlayson said the "high and mighty, such as Dame Anne Salmond", were wrong in their opposition. He labelled statements likening the GCSB bill to Nazi Germany as "disgraceful".

In two newspaper columns, Dame Anne mentioned that in Nazi Germany, critics were told "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear", and likened that to arguments by the bill's supporters.

In Parliament yesterday, Mr Finlayson also slated former Labour prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who he said allowed the GCSB to operate during his time with "no legislation at all".

But he claimed the "worst contribution" had come from Dame Anne - an anthropologist and the current New Zealander of the Year - whom he accused of being "shrill and unprofessional".

Dame Anne responded after the legislation was passed last night, saying: "It's incredibly sad. I think people who have raised concerns about the bill are raising them because they care about democracy, and they care about the rights of our citizens.

"If we're talking about democratic freedom in New Zealand, and it's descended into gutter politics like that, I just find it so sad." 

Fairfax Media