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GCSB spies on foreigners, not us

Newly leaked NSA documents included in journalist Glenn Greenwald’s new book show New Zealand’s GCSB has been briefed on US surveillance methods.

The powerpoint slides, purportedly displayed to GCSB staff members in 2011, are part of an estimated one million documents stolen by NSA technician Edward Snowden last year.

None of the methods so far described show any clear violation of New Zealand’s domestic surveillance laws by the GCSB.

However, according to Mr Greenwald’s book, the methods that the GCSB had access to in 2011 are similar to the dragnet surveillance programs used by the NSA to monitor American digital communication (the so-called ‘metadata’).

One training slide teaches New Zealand cyber-spies how to use the “X-Keyscore” data-retrieval system to query metadata files stored in a central NSA database.

The exact use of this particular surveillance system is difficult to verify. Edward Snowden described it as giving analysts the ability to “read anyone’s email in the world.”

However, NSA spokespeople and Washington Post security reporter Marc Ambinder suggest it works more like a search program to locate already-gathered data for analysis.

Another document reportedly explains that GCSB officers were included in the sharing of diplomatic espionage product between the Five Eyes members. Some of that product may have included communication between the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and her aides.

When the revelations of Five Eyes spying on Brazil were revealed in December, a deal with Brasilia to buy Boeing fighter aircraft fell through. The deal’s collapse, and subsequent Brazilian choice to purchase Swedish-made Saab aircraft instead, was blamed on the exposed surveillance program.

However, as reported in Bloomberg at the time, a cooler analysis of the deal suggested the Saab aircraft were ultimately better suited to Brazil’s security needs and would cost less to run over an operational lifetime than the American jets.

New Zealand intelligence agencies were also briefed about the NSA’s plan to place backdoor software into private organisation’s computer networks.

Mr Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide, says the ability to gain access to a computer via these backdoors was enacted on hardware destined for foreign customers.

As far as the Five Eyes group is concerned, due to their mutual agreement, “foreign customers” in this case does not necessarily indicate these backdoor programs were used on hardware destined for New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the UK, or the US.

Another document describes how an NSA method to capture the communications of airplane passengers while they are in the air was shared with GCSB staff.

The program, called “Homing Pigeon”, is an effort to fill the gaps of surveillance while people are on the move. One slide talked about the advantage of real-time monitoring of communications in aircraft.

“We can confirm that targets ... are on board specific flights in near real time, enabling surveillance or arrest teams to be put in place in advance,” says the slide.

Prime minister John Key said in a recent NBR interview that to the best of his knowledge, the New Zealand intelligence agencies have been acting within the law.

Asked whether leaked files about New Zealand’s spying efforts, similar to the ones released in the latest book, could affect the election outcome Mr Key responded:“I am not concerned by this as I think the vast bulk of New Zealanders acknowledge the need for intelligence collection to protect both New Zealanders and our property.”

More by Nathan Smith

Comments and questions

The NSA spies on all of us, stores the data and provides the GCSB with the tools and training to search this data.
The GCSB spies on us in a round-a-bout way.

If Mr Key's assurance is only "to the best of his knowledge", then in the area of intelligence-gathering, as in so many other areas, he and his government are asleep at the wheel.

And the majority of NZ''ers are happy with the need for intelligence services and the trade off's required for the benefit of all. Those that don't like it should move to more open societies with no surveillance or security organisations; like the one Snowden choose, that paragon of freedom, Russia

Or being deliberately deceptive.

Does anyone outside the Beltway really care, does this information affect us in our lives...

I know a terrorist attack might...

Face it, most of us are not really doing or saying anything that interesting....

The International security apparatus has a habit of not only spying on illegal actions but also those with different political views from the "establishment". People such as Martin Luther King have historically been spied on, not for any crimes they are or would be committing but because of their views.

So we might have greenies, otherwise known as eco-terrorists, who might need to be spied on so it becomes easier to discredit their ideologies though advance knowledge of information that are sharing with colleagues.

There might be people with non-traditional religious views that might need to be kept an eye on incase they become radicalised or extremist in their views.

There might be people who oppose so called "Free Trade Agreements", it's definitely in the national interest to spy on them in case they manage to disrupt an anti-democratic negotiation process where the only stake holders allowed to read the draft text are representatives of industry groups looking out for corporate profits.

The reality is a lot of fringe groups advance our society over time through harmonisation of ideas that where once considered radical. Thanks to the Suffragette movement women were able to vote for the first time in the world in New Zealand from 1893. We think nothing of it today, but 120 years ago the idea of women voting did not sit easy with much of the male population. It is possible that had the Suffragette's been around in today's technical era Government security agencies would find it in the national interest to spy on them.

The problem arrises when the Government can monitor the every movement and communication of somebody who is not actually doing something illegal, but involved politically in a view that is not commonly held at the time. If that snooping can find scandal such as an illicit affair, viewing of extreme or unusual porn online then this may be used by the establishment to discredit the person and the cause. Snowden documents show this sort of thing is happening in the USA still today and on the balance of probabilities is probably happening in New Zealand.

The point I wish to make in response to Beanie's question about "does this information affect us in our lives..." The answer is yes. Society with its entrenched views are typically quite laggard when it comes to accepting paradigm shifts that alter the way we view the world. If you believe in women's voting, 40 hour working week, racial equality, religious freedoms or other human rights then who the Government spies on is important and affects you.

In New Zealand there is a close relationship between major political parties and various high profile bloggers. The information that the government has on you is pretty darn important. Heck even the GCSB's Kitteridge Report was leaked to the media and that had top secret clearance! So to think that information that might discredit people supporting a minority political view would not be used because NZ civil servants are beyond reproach is naive. Information relating to political causes get leaked in New Zealand every day of the week and the impact of these leaks can change public opinion, Government policy and ultimately even the laws of this very country.

We no longer get to vote up/down comments (boo-hiss), but if we still could I'd definitely vote + to this which sums why governments should not be able to bulk collect.

Frankly if the GCSB said the sky was blue I'd be double checking outside.

Thank you Rob Anderson for being the voice of reason in reply to the "I've got nothing to hide" mentality too many people seem to sleep behind.

GCSB may not be spying on us, but the NSA does, and the GCSB has access to that database. So basically, whether or not it's the GCSB doing the actual spying is purely academic, the fact is that they have access to our metadata and no real checks to prevent them from using it. Meaning John Key and Ian Fletcher outright lied about all this last year. Shameful.

Do you not get it yet?

The Five Eyes all collect eachother's data and share via the second party.

Wake up.

I don't think many would have issues with security services to protect from terrorism etc. But that is not the point. There needs to be public confidence that these security measures are not being used for political agendas, and key to that is trusting the politicians who can't even answer questions. Consume the msm everyday, do you see any politicians that inspire trust and transparency?

Would anyone of those that "have nothing to hide" give me a key to their home and be happy to see me barge in unannounced anytime, hang around, listen to conversations or worse? In this example they would be better off than they are now because they would know who I am, they would be asked to provide a key, they would know that I am present and what I saw and heard etc. etc.