National's fix over GCSB draws a storm of protest

CENTRE OF ATTENTION: Kim Dotcom was undoubtedly the star turn at the hearings.
CENTRE OF ATTENTION: Kim Dotcom was undoubtedly the star turn at the hearings.

Some entered wheeling a suitcase behind them, others clutching bundles of documents.

The big man, Kim Dotcom, had need of neither. He has an entourage to carry his stuff.

He flew into Wellington in a black helicopter, and it was like he brought some of that fierce turbulence with him into committee room two of Bowen House. The public gallery - which was chokka that day - rippled as he entered the room.

Dotcom was undoubtedly the star turn at public hearings on the Government Communications Security Bureau bill. But he was not the only one there to tell his story to the intelligence and security committee for a rare public hearing chaired by Prime Minister John Key.

Christchurch woman Kate Dewes pulled a pile of ripped and torn envelopes out of her bag - evidence of tampering by spies, she insisted.

"‘I have been under surveillance by the SIS since at least the mid-1980s because of my role as a peace and anti-nuclear campaigner," she told MPs.

"I and my family have been subject to interference by phone, mail and email."

Michael Koziarski, who described himself as a tech consultant for American and European companies, acknowledged concerns about the legislation. But he also put in a plug for GCSB employees.

"The individuals who work for GCSB; they're dedicated public servants in my experience . . . They are typically working in constrained environments; they are paid significantly less than they would make working for the [private] sector."

Among the dozens of submissions, however, there was just one overriding theme. That extending the powers of surveillance of the GCSB allowed by the bill goes too far.

The Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill is supposed to be a "fix" for what the Government would prefer to call a legal grey area - the ability of the bureau to spy on New Zealanders.

A report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge revealed as many as 88 New Zealanders had been spied on by the GCSB despite legislation passed in 2003 clearly stating that it would not do so. The Kitteridge report was sparked by the admission the GCSB had spied illegally on Dotcom, who was a New Zealand resident at the time.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman reminded submitter Keith Locke of a speech by National's Tony Ryall during debate on the 2003 law change: "People who have quite a bent on conspiracy theories seem to think that all the Government Communications Security Bureau ever does is listen in on New Zealanders' telephone calls, which is, of course, expressly prohibited. The bureau is not allowed to listen in on New Zealanders."

But the Government insists it was never the intention of the Labour-led administration back then to stop the GCSB training its considerable technology on New Zealanders. It had always done so under an "outsourcing" arrangement with the Security Intelligence Service, Police and Defence Force, the Government says.

That is not how most submitters saw it.

Dotcom told the committee he was shocked at the plan to extend the GCSB's powers.

"Why would citizens choose to relax the limits on the Government's spying powers in response to the GCSB breaking the law?

"Just like any partner in the ‘Five Eyes' spy club the GCSB gets access to the Five Eyes spy cloud; this spy cloud contains every email, every text message, phone call, check message, sms, almost all communications of every New Zealander.

"The GCSB can simply input the selector data of a person like they did in my case as if they do a Google search and everything about that person becomes visible going back many years into the past. All they need is your phone number, your email address or your IP address."

Digital civil liberties group TechLiberty told MPs how it was now "cost effective" to collect masses of innocuous data about people, "dump it all into a huge data store and then run sophisticated analysis software over it to extract information about what people do".

"Taking just the example of phone records, metadata can include who we call, when we call them, how often we call them, how long we speak for, where we call them from, who they call after we call them and so on."

From such patterns it would be possible to deduce, for instance, impending corporate takeovers or sensitive medical information, the organisation said.

Adding additional sources of information such as banking records, electronic toll records and other records would give a very detailed picture of someone's life.

Its submission argued that the GCSB Act should be amended to make it clear the collection of metadata is subject to the same controls and limitations as other communications.

The Law Society warned that the bill was intrusive and there was a lack of justification for it.

It called for a proper analysis to be done as to whether the intrusion was "demonstrably justified" and accompanied by appropriate safeguards.

And it argued against the Government line that the bill just formalises the status quo.

Among the issues it raised was that if the GCSB was called upon to assist another specified agency, such as the police, and perform activities instead of that other agency, those activities would "receive the imprimatur and secrecy and immunity protections of the GCSB Act. In that way, enlistment of the GCSB co-operation may confer on the activities undertaken a protected legal status which they would not otherwise receive."

If there was a big hole in the three days' worth of hearings, however, it was the argument in favour of the law.

Police, the SIS, GCSB and Defence Force were all silent on the bill, having not sent in submissions.

Mr Key and government members on the committee asked some derisory questions on day two of the hearing - Mr Key, for instance, asking one submitter what he would think if the next-door neighbour was found to be downloading bomb-making information from the internet.

Not much, was the answer, if the person downloading it was just a curious kid.

Massey University lecturer James Veitch was almost a lone voice arguing that the bill was not only necessary but welcome.

"It gives the GCSB the power and authority to function more openly in the New Zealand context without compromising its international roles and New Zealand's international responsibilities and obligations," he told MPs.

But he was also supportive of some changes to address public concern about issues relating to accountability.

That dovetails with a proposal by NZ First leader Winston Peters, who says stronger oversight would be a condition of his party supporting the bill, which it currently opposes.

After two days of hearings, Mr Key appeared to acknowledge that the concerns about oversight were justified and the bill could be beefed up.

He confirmed the Government was already working on the proposal for a three-person oversight panel and would look at other changes.

The Dominion Post