New Zealand Spied On Its Citizens Before Making It Legal, Says Snowden

Even as his government was working with the NSA on widespread collection of data, Prime Minister John Key said the new law "is not, and never will be, about wholesale spying on New Zealanders."

Daniel Stuckey

Daniel Stuckey

Waihopai Valley and Wairau River, South Island, New Zealand with the two white radomes of the GCSB's Waihopai Echelon spying station visible just left and below the center. Photo by Side78/ Flickr

A little over a year ago, the New Zealand government passed legislation that legally authorized its version of the NSA, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), to spy on its own citizens. Narrowly, the law passed after a heated debate between lawmakers, rights groups, and local internet tycoon Kim Dotcom.

At the time, Prime Minister John Key commented the new law "is not, and never will be, about wholesale spying on New Zealanders."

But a set of secret documents provided by Edward Snowden suggests that New Zealand officials had already begun to design and implement mass surveillance programs before such a law had ever gone to parliament.

According to the new documents, published by Glenn Greenwald Monday, the GCSB had already begun cooperating with the US National Security Agency as early as 2012. Even as it sought legal authorization, the government was planning to grant NSA access to its major undersea cable network that connects New Zealand to the rest of the world sometime in "mid-2013," under a program code-named "Speargun."

One top secret NSA document from 2012 states: "Project Speargun underway." Another document discussing reports, under the heading "New Zealand," that "Partner cable access program achieves Phase I."

An NSA document from 2012.

"I can tell you there are serious questions about whether the current government was at all truthful with its citizens in connection with that bill," Greenwald said on a New Zealand television station. He had unveiled the report earlier in the day at an event in Auckland organized by Kim Dotcom, who was found to be the target of electronic surveillance by the government in 2012. According to Greenwald, the GCSB has had a direct working relationship with its Five Eyes counterparts, the NSA (US) and the GCHQ (UK).

In anticipation of the report, Key for the first time admitted that the GCSB had earlier intended to implement a spying program. However, Key claimed the GCSB had never actually gone through with it.

Greenwald's report, along with a separate government investigation, have shown that in 2012, Kim Dotcom's communications, along with those of dozens of other citizens and legal residents, were illegally surveilled by New Zealand law enforcement. The deputy director of GCSB resigned. No officials would be prosecuted, but the Key government would propose a new law that would allow domestic electronic surveillance going forward.

But even before the Key government began pushing for the new law, it had also already begun plans with the NSA to tap undersea cables starting around the time a law was expected to be passed. 

By the terms described in the documents, the law appears to be seen as a fait accompli. The NSA would come to view the passage of the law as essential to implementing metadata collection in New Zealand, providing, writes the Intercept "exactly the powers that Key repeatedly and publicly denied it would vest."

A document from 2012 leaked by Edward Snowden shows plans for a metadata collection program starting in "mid 2013."

While it's not clear if the full extent of the program had gone into effect before the passage of the law in August 2013, Phase I, which called for the tapping of undersea cables, was on track to be implemented by "mid 2013."

Alongside the report by Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept published an op-ed by Edward Snowden contradicting Key's assertions to parliament that "Cyber security is about protecting our secrets" and "not about spying."

"If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched," writes the former NSA contractor in his first op-ed for the publication. "At the NSA I routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in my work with a mass surveillance tool we share with GCSB, called 'XKEYSCORE.' It allows total, granular access to the database of communications collected in the course of mass surveillance. It is not limited to or even used largely for the purposes of cybersecurity, as has been claimed, but is instead used primarily for reading individuals' private email, text messages, and internet traffic."

One NSA document from 2011 and released in May tells New Zealand and its other "Five Eyes" intelligence partners of its ambition to "know it all", "collect it all", "exploit it all" and "partner it all".

Formed in response to the government's illegal spying programs, Dotcom's Internet Party, allied with New Zealand's leftist Mana Party, are prepared to win a handful seats in Parliament. Just ahead of New Zealand's general election this Saturday, Key has struggled with the spying accusations, simultaneously admitting he knew about the programs while dismissing Greenwald's story, and deriding the Pulitzer-winning journalist as "Dotcom's little henchman."

Greenwald's report isn't the only challenge facing Key ahead of elections. A new book released by the investigative journalist Nicky Hager, "Dirty Politics," combs through a trove of rightwing blogger Cameron Slater's hacked emails, accusing Key and his colleagues of dirty tricks and smear campaigns in order to further the PM's position and that of the National Party.

"National security has become the National Party's security," Snowden writes. "What we're seeing today is that in New Zealand, the balance between the public's right to know and the propriety of a secret is determined by a single factor: the political advantage it offers to a specific party and or a specific politician."

On August 21 of last year, the New Zealand Parliament narrowly voted to enact the new law by a vote of 61 to 59.  Before passage, Key acknowledged that the new law had "alarmed" people but "rejected that by writing into law what the GCSB had already been doing meant an extension of its powers."

In practice, however, Key's powers were already being extended: the government had already authorized an expanded, unprecedented form of surveillance over the country's communications. According to the new documents, the program's first phase—a "first metadata probe"—may already gone into effect by the time of the legislation.

At one point, Key promised to resign if the GCSB were found to be engaging in mass surveillance.

"There have been claims this Bill offers no protection of metadata and allows for wholesale collection of metadata without a warrant," Prime Minister Key said before the surveillance law was passed. "None of that is true."

On Sunday, the Prime Minister added that he intended to further refute the claims made by Greenwald, and promised to declassify and release top-secret documents proving the program was never actually implemented.