Hot Topic Reporting season
Hot Topic Reporting season
3 mins to read

GCSB spies on foreigners, not us

Nathan Smith
Thu, 15 May 2014

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.”

Nathan Smith
Thu, 15 May 2014
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
GCSB spies on foreigners, not us