Silence on surveillance not healthy


Nicky Hager must wonder why he bothers.

The journalist brought the Snowden documents to New Zealand in the last week, to be met with a collective shrug of shoulders. Maybe you are unmoved at the Government Communications Security Bureau spying on Pacific neighbours. Perhaps you don't care if your emails, texts and Facebook messages are hoovered up and stored in a US data bank. Or that the GCSB is little more than an outpost of the US National Security Agency. But, with a pending significant review and a likely increase in their electronic reach, there are still a few reasons to take the leaked papers seriously.


GCSB update 2012

Second Party National Identity Rules

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Yes, yes, spies work in secret. That's as it should be. But to prevent abuse of the immense power offered by bulk data collection, robust oversight mechanisms are crucial. Yet, they barely exist here. Despite recent vague promises to be more open, spy agencies remain in the shadows. More than a year after her appointment - and two years after an overhaul - watchdog Cheryl Gwyn released her first report but says she didn't have enough information to determine if the agencies operate differently after an illegal spying scandal. The responsible parliamentary committee is equally toothless and Chris Finlayson, minister in charge, has dismissed public deliberation over spy legislation as "chit chat."


In an abuse of power, Prime Minister John Key's staff used information supplied by the Security Intelligence Service in a partisan hit job on then-Opposition leader Phil Goff. Key has also selectively used intelligence to justify a controversial decision to send troops to Iraq and further boost surveillance powers. At the same time, he's refused to make public full details. Governments are perfectly entitled to argue national security as a reason for keeping intelligence secret. But it's dangerous when politicians use sensitive - and partial - snippets of information to push their own agenda. Or bully those they don't agree with.


Key, probably quite correctly, assesses that the public care more about snapper than spying. The initial revelations from the Snowden archives actually galvanised his support. It gives Key the confidence to vilify journalists, like Glenn Greenwald and Hager. That is bolstered when other media outlets slavishly report his pre-emptive strikes, even before scrutinising their investigative work, or the evidence. But the absence of debate about surveillance is not healthy. This is where abuses go unnoticed and thrive. And it's Orwellian when Key shuts down pertinent questions with: you don't understand the detail, and the journalists are wrong.

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Despite the Government's regular assurances the GCSB are acting legally, with each set of revelations, come contradictions. Back in September, when asked if bulk data collection tools like XKeyscore were being used on Kiwis, Key said: "We're not collecting wholesale information. We don't have the capability for mass surveillance." The Snowden documents tell a different story: describing how emails, browsing sessions, and chat messages from 150 different locations are harvested through Waihopai, using XKeyscore. Snowden often came across New Zealanders' data while using XKeyscore in his work and Key conceded he might well be right. Whether it came from surveillance by the GCSB was never proven. We can only take Key's word that New Zealanders are not subject to mass surveillance by their own agency - and he promised to resign if it happened. But he's wrong to say the GCSB don't have the tools.

 - Sunday Star Times

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