Top spies front up to MP questioning

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 18:45 03/12/2013
ROBERT KITCHIN/Fairfax NZ

Government Communications Security Bureau director Ian Fletcher responding to questions from Green Party co-leader Russel Norman before the intelligence and security committee.

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New Zealanders' private information is not harvested by the Government's spy agencies – but isn't protected if it is routed through other countries, intelligence agencies say.

The country's top spooks appeared before MPs in public for the first time today.

Government Communications Security Bureau director Ian Fletcher was quizzed about the mass collection of data and metadata.

He offered assurances that the GCSB does not collect bulk data generated by Kiwis. Nor does it use intelligence partners in other countries to collect such information.

Fletcher also said he didn't believe the US National Security Agency was targeting Kiwis through mass surveillance.

However, if emails or other communications travelled through overseas servers they were subject to the laws of those countries, which left them open to surveillance, he said.

And a 60-year-old gentlemen's agreement between Five Eyes intelligence partners would not apply to the work of law enforcement agencies in those nations.

Five Eyes is made up of New Zealand, Australia, Britain, the US and Canada.

"The data is governed by the laws of the place where it is found, so if it sits on a server in Singapore it is subject to the laws of Singapore," Fletcher said.

Many popular internet services – such as Google and Facebook – are based in the US.

Fletcher said documents leaked by US fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden this week showed "conversations" between Five Eyes agents on how to deal with sharing information in a "dynamic technological environment".

"I think what we see is our partners and ourselves grappling with how we ensure how we stay compliant with the spirit as well as the letter of the framework which has been put in place."

However, he refused to say if the GCSB used data programmes PRISM or XKeyscore, which were highlighted in the Snowden document.

Security and Intelligence Service director Warren Tucker also responded to questions from Green Party co-leader Russel Norman before the intelligence and security committee.

Asked if the SIS undertook "large-scale collection" of New Zealanders' information, he emphatically said: "Absolutely not."

On wholesale collection by overseas agencies, he said: "I don't see NZSIS having a role ... is the short answer."

He also said he was unaware of illegal snooping on internet mogul Kim Dotcom until just before the scandal became public.

Tucker said the SIS had 230 staff and its primary role was to protect New Zealand and advance the country's interests.

Tucker highlighted work which included supporting troops and police in Afghanistan. Vetting work and security clearances accounted for a third of the agencies' work.

He was pleased collaboration with GCSB had resumed following an illegal spying scandal, which saw such assistance halted while new laws were passed.

The SIS was the nation's unsung heroes, he said. It did "thankless work" conducted in dangerous and unpleasant places. The agency was "essential" and made a "material difference."

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The hearing was chaired by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson. He said it was a significant opportunity to improve understanding of the agencies' work. 

- Stuff

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