The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is making headlines in New Zealand – for all the wrong reasons.
This is not common, and from an intelligence perspective, neither is it good to read.
Intelligence agencies appreciate being in the media spotlight about as much most people enjoy hospital waiting rooms. That is to say, not much at all.
Signals intelligence is not a very common expression among regular people. The contraction SIGINT might flicker some distant memories, perhaps from an old Tom Clancy book.
This is exactly the way these government agencies like it. The less the public hear about them, the more efficient their work can be – or so they say.
The nature of signals intelligence is incredibly secretive.
Formed in 1977, GCSB is responsible for collecting signals intelligence, or SIGINT in intelligence parlance.
Signals in this sense include communications between people, over many electronic mediums, and other electronic emissions such as radar.
Small but active
The New Zealand intelligence community is small but very active in the world. Its partners are some of the globe’s largest agencies in terms of funding.
New Zealand is part of a coalition of Western hemisphere signals intelligence agencies called the UKUSA agreement – including Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States – also known as Five Eyes.
Even though the agreement is signed by the US and Britain, New Zealand, as part of the Commonwealth, has used it to base its alliance links and guide the GCSB for more than 50 years.
The intention was to forge an intelligence bond around a common national security objective. The world was divided into five areas of responsibility and each agency was assigned specific signals intelligence targets.
Created to share intelligence between allies – especially signals intelligence – the agreement has streamlined the collection and analysis of gargantuan amounts of intercepted data and communications.
There is thought to be around 130 known listening stations worldwide. Some are huge, such as Britain's Menwith Hill complex, and some are small or even function automatically.
The agreement standardised terminology, codes, clearances, handling procedures and access to facilities. An exchange of personnel is common, but New Zealand is still a secondary partner in this secretive alliance.
The agreement is a resolve to spy on all others except the pact's members. If intelligence sharing is to flow freely, a certain level of trust is required.
Governments of the UKUSA members are ultra careful to restrain their agencies from spying on their own citizens. Media outlets this week have reported on New Zealand’s very clear laws governing the GCSB's operations.
There is nothing, however, keeping the other members from monitoring their partners' citizens and quietly handing over that information as part of the intelligence sharing agreement.
James Bamford, an American author who has made a distinguished career of spying on the spies, explains in his books that the US Fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorisation Act (FISA) requires that National Security Agency ensures the privacy of American citizens.
Australian and Canadian signals agencies also go to some effort to avoid collecting their citizens' communications.
A major loophole
But this has left a major loophole for UKUSA partners as other members are still able to use their colleagues' equipment and, their own, to wiretap their partners' citizens.
Because of this, according to Bamford and other authors, the world is totally monitored. There are few black spots without interception, even among the UKUSA five.
The rules governing one member country’s own agencies, including the GCSB, do not apply for another member and the agreement ensures those intercepts are returned once collected.
New Zealand, as a secondary partner, has never acknowledged the existence of the UKUSA agreement. Wellington has no authority to publicise its existence even if it wants to as it is, strictly speaking, a British and US pact.
A partnership with various telecommunications industries has secured access to the internet for the UKUSA signals agencies. All traffic on the internet and via emails is reportedly captured and stored.
This monitored traffic comes from all over the world.
The NSA is building an enormous new data warehouse in Utah for the huge volume of internet traffic it has collected as the old storage area at Fort Meade, Maryland, is full, despite the gigantic size of the complex.
Such a Herculean task of analysing such material is probably beyond the abilities of various agencies analysts, but having it filed could prove useful in the future.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) such as Skype is apparently proving difficult to monitor.
Before las week, the GCSB was perhaps best known here for an attack by protesters on its kevlar "radome" at the listening station in Waihopai Valley, Marlborough, in 2008. Of course, the agency itself is not widely remembered despite the damage and resulting court case.
So when the curtain is raised, however briefly, to reveal the strings behind the government it is always instructive to pay attention.
Normal people, unconventional jobs
But it is important to remember that intelligence agencies are full of normal people in somewhat unconventional jobs. While the decision makers and leaders should be questioned and held to account, the intelligence analysts and collectors are simply doing their jobs.
But think back to December 16, 2011, and try and recall your activities, or what the weather was like.
Somewhere in New Zealand at that time GCSB had begun intercepting Megaload founder and multimillionaire Kim Dotcom’s communications, and would continue to do so for at least another month.
Regardless of the legality then, that very same spying process is happening right now. Somewhere in New Zealand the GCSB is quietly monitoring the Pacific region’s communications and will do so for as long as our intelligence partners need our assistance.
After a few weeks at most, chances are the secretive government agency will melt back into the shadows to continue its work virtually unnoticed.
Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis