The Biggest Leak In History Reaches New Zealand
- Nicky Hager
During 2015 the Edward Snowden leaks relating to New Zealand finally reached the news, the largest number of secret intelligence documents about New Zealand ever to reach the public. Snowden revelations had been appearing country by country for two years before they arrived here, so there is a risk that they might be taken a bit for granted. But we do well to remember that leaks like this are not at all the normal state of affairs. The usual state with intelligence agencies is simply silence: no information, no news and no debate, unless of course the agencies themselves have chosen to release some self-justifying public relations. It is inevitable that we will return to that silence before too long, so we should make the most of the rare insights that Edward Snowden has given us.
What follows is an overview of what we've learned; first the global picture and then about New Zealand in the Five Eyes alliance (US, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ). The most well-publicised and shocking news in the Snowden documents was the scale of surveillance by the US-UK intelligence agencies: tapping undersea cables, eavesdropping covertly from embassy buildings in numerous foreign capitals, intercepting the Internet in numerous ways, hacking into computer and telecom networks, routinely accessing US-based companies like Google and Facebook and much, much more.
No, Everyone Doesn’t Do It
Some apologists say "everyone does it". But that isn't factually true. The Anglo-American surveillance network outstrips all other big powers in trying to spy on the whole Internet and all the communications on earth. It is a bizarre, science fiction-like mission. Two things have driven the massive expansion of surveillance. The most important is the growth of digital electronics. Sixty five years ago when the Five Eyes alliance began, the primary target of electronic spying was long distance radio. The five agencies used every technical opportunity to monitor and extract usable intelligence from this sole medium of communication.
Twenty years ago - early in the digital age - when New Zealand intelligence staff told me about the alliance-wide mass surveillance systems used at the Waihopai station, the bulk communications of the world were relayed via satellites and these were the focus of the electronic spy agencies. This intelligence source was exploited to the maximum extent possible. But today there are thousands of different digital systems and networks that communicate and store information. Each tiny detail of the booting of a computer, each aspect of a social media platform, each component of a mobile phone: they all provide potential vulnerabilities and access points for the teams of the electronic spies. This is what the Snowden documents revealed. This is why the scale of surveillance has increased so much. The Anglo-American intelligence agencies continue to believe they should spy to the maximum extent possible and technology has hugely increased what is possible.
Technical opportunity combined fatefully with political opportunity. The September 11, 2001 attacks gave the intelligence agencies greatly increased resources and political support to expand their operations. Now, 14 years later, the September 11 attacks are in the past and many people understand the mess created by the War on Terror. But all the main elements of the mass surveillance regime built in those years remains. The electronic spy agencies have a profound effect on world politics. The primary purpose of intelligence agencies is to help their countries to have power and influence over other countries; much the same role as military force. Intelligence agencies are the unseen influences in every international issue and dispute. This is, at heart, what it means to be a Five Eyes intelligence ally: taking sides in these international issues and disputes.
Some publicity of the Snowden revelations has made it seem as though the main casualties of mass surveillance systems were Americans and allied citizens, as national security intelligence gathering systems were secretly turned against domestic populations. There is more on this subject below. But the main use by far of the Five Eyes intelligence systems is spying on the rest of the world. That is what the agencies are for, that is where the vast majority of the casualties are and that is the subject that most deserves our concern.
NZ Spies On Friends
The New Zealand-related Snowden revelations instantly made this clear. As the headline of the first newspaper story said: "The Price Of The Five Eyes Club: Mass Spying On Friendly Nations". A Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) report, obtained by Snowden from the computers of the National Security Agency (NSA), showed the New Zealand agency routinely spying on Samoa, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati and all our other Pacific neighbours. Private information on their governments, diplomats, economic negotiation positions and everything else from these supposed friends is handed on to the Five Eyes partners. The details are here: (http://www.nickyhager.info/snowdennz-the-price-of-the-five-eyes-club-mass-spying-on-friendly-nations).
Some commentators argued that New Zealand needs to know the secrets of these nations for national security reasons, but that is weak and missed the point. The reason why New Zealand spies on these countries is as a long-term duty within the Anglo-American intelligence alliance. The world is divided up between the US and its allies and New Zealand's agency got the job of spying on every country from French Polynesia to the Solomon Islands. Old alliance obligations are put ahead of everything else. It is worth remembering that agencies like the GCSB get their legitimacy from the idea that they are fighting threats to the very security of the country. That is how they built up their powers: Cold War-type spying justified for dire Cold War-type threats. But there has been endless mission drift and normalising of the use of national security-type capabilities against targets that are not a serious threat at all. The South Pacific microstates are a sad example of this.
Other leaked documents showed GCSB staff used the NSA's XKeyscore system to monitor the emails of senior public servants in the Solomon Islands government (http://www.nickyhager.info/revealed-the-names-nz-targeted-using-nsas-xkeyscore-system). New Zealand was running inconsistent public and private foreign policies. In one, New Zealand is friendly to, and supports, the Solomons; in the other, New Zealand sells out the Solomons to gain political benefits in its US and UK relations.
The GCSB duties in the alliance cover many other countries too, as listed in an April 2013 NSA profile of the GCSB in a section headed “What Partner Provides to NSA”. The review said the GCSB “continues to be especially helpful in its ability to provide NSA ready access to areas and countries … difficult for the US to access”. It said the “GCSB provides collection on China, Japanese/North Korean/Vietnamese/South American diplomatic communications, South Pacific island nations, Pakistan, India, Iran and Antarctica” (http://www.nickyhager.info/snowden-revelations-nzs-spy-reach-stretches-across-globe/)
These targets are largely disconnected from the rest of New Zealand's foreign policies and are not really about New Zealand's relations with those countries and territories at all. They are mainly about contributing to the intelligence alliance in its mission of spying on the whole world. A strange example of this is New Zealand helping to spy on Bangladesh. The main security threat by far to Bangladesh is flooding because of climate change. New Zealand could be helping. We could give aid. But, unbeknown to the New Zealand Parliament and public, New Zealand's main (in fact, practically only) interaction with that country is helping spy on it, as part of the US war on terror. The story can be read here: http://www.nickyhager.info/982/
Spying On Chinese Consulate
Some of the GCSB spying has more direct and serious implications for New Zealand. The most striking example of this is about whether it is sensible for New Zealand to spy on its possibly most important trading partner to show its loyalty to old colonial intelligence ties. This is about China. In public, the National government professes close and friendly relations with China. Many of the Government's economic plans revolve around increasing exports to that country. And it is strongly in New Zealand's interests not to get caught in big power rivalry between the US and China. But in secret, within the spy agencies, China comes first on the list of intelligence targets that New Zealand takes on for the US-led intelligence alliance.
Probably the most surprising thing we found in the Snowden papers was plans for a joint GCSB-NSA operation to hack into the communications of the Chinese Consulate in Auckland (http://www.nickyhager.info/how-nz-and-us-agents-plotted-to-spy-on-china). This seems almost crazy, with little practical gain likely compared to the obvious risks. But up until 2013, when Snowden left the NSA with his trove of internal documents, planning was full steam ahead for breaking international law and tapping into the Consulate communications. We wrote the story carefully, because Snowden's access to documents stopped before there was time to see that that the Consulate spying was underway. But my view was that it was such a sensitive subject that the Government would quickly deny the story if the spying had not gone ahead. When the story was published, the Government said nothing.
Intelligence agencies like to hint about the remarkable intelligence that New Zealand receives in exchange for contributing to the Five Eyes alliance. However the leaked GCSB and NSA documents contained far more about what New Zealand gives to the NSA than what it gets in return. The main benefit to New Zealand appears to be that New Zealand spies get access to high-tech NSA surveillance and analysis technology: setting up and training New Zealand staff to be able to contribute to the alliance-wide intelligence missions.
Spying For Tim Groser
There was only one story about New Zealand using its access to the international intelligence systems to get a particular benefit for New Zealand. It's a grubby and embarrassing story. The story dates from early 2013, when Trade Minister Tim Groser was frantically travelling the world lobbying to be appointed as Director General of the World Trade Organisation (http://www.nickyhager.info/snowden-files-how-spy-agency-homed-in-on-grosers-rivals). Candidates from eight other countries - Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Kenya, Ghana, Jordan and Costa Rica - were also going for the job. The National government used the Five Eyes Internet mass surveillance systems to spy on the other candidates' emails.
In other words, it cheated, using the intelligence agency to do a favour for a mate. It is hard to imagine a more petty use of national security systems. That's what they got in return for spying on our friends, trading partners and neighbours. The final revelations worth mentioning are about the Waihopai station. Internal GCSB documents revealed for the first time precisely what systems are used there. I recommend this article: http://www.nickyhager.info/snowden-files-inside-waihopais-domes, or here with the illustrations http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/67082905/Snowden-files-Inside-Waihopais-domes
Waihopai’s Odd Codenames
The Snowden-leaked documents reveal that the Waihopai staff use all of the following systems:
Apparition - finds position of isolated "VSAT" satellite users
Darkquest - analyses satellite communications
Fallowhaunt - targets “VSAT" satellite communications
Juggernaut - targets and processes cellphone communications
Latentheat - breaks the intercepted satellite signals down into individual messages
Legalreptile - collects text messages and call metadata
Lopers - searches for phone numbers in intercepted messages
Semitone- processes fax and voice messages
Stonegate - collects and processes dial-up and fax modem data
Surfboard - targets land-line phones
Venusaffect - "command and control" of other systems
Wealthycluster - processes digital comms, especially voice over Internet protocol (VoiP)
Xkeyscore - targets and processes bulk Internet traffic.
Plus others with equally odd names for which we could not figure out the function. These are not GCSB or New Zealand systems. They are NSA systems, standard equipment in one of the standardised Five Eyes satellite interception stations dotted around the world. They are a reminder of how thoroughly un-New Zealand the Waihopai operation is. The final subject raised by the Snowden revelations is how much the Five Eyes intelligence systems have been turned against these countries' own citizens.
Spying On New Zealanders
Back when I was interviewing a range of GCSB staff in the 1990s, they assured me that there were strict rules against any of the Five Eyes agencies spying on their own or one of the other four countries' citizens. Except in exceptional situations, I think this was true. It is now clear that technological change and the War on Terror politics have changed this. I think it is very important to be as precise as possible on this subject. The idea of mass surveillance (whether it is correct or not) has an insidious and damaging effect on people. It corrodes our sense of private space and of private thoughts, and our sense of self. This means that people speaking publicly about the effects of intelligence activities have to be careful not to create needless fear. I will run through what I think is, and is not, going on.
First, following the Snowden revelations there have been claims that everyone is being monitored all the time: every time they take out a library book, speak on the phone or go on the Internet. This is not true and it's vital that we reassure people. The principle underlying mass surveillance systems is that they do try to catch everyone's communications in a giant spy net, so that when they want to target someone or some subject, the data is available. But this does not mean that everyone is being actively watched; that some shadowy intelligence officer somewhere is actually monitoring those library books and emails. Something like 99.99% of people caught in the electronic net will never be actively monitored. Sometimes their Internet browsing may be incidentally caught in an overseas Internet capture system, but it will almost certainly remain an unexamined piece of hay in a huge intelligence haystack.
We should be concerned about the real target groups (for instance currently some Muslim people) but we should not spread unnecessary fear to others. Nearly everyone who ever worries that they might be a target of mass surveillance systems is luckily wrong. They can live their lives feeling unviolated because it is genuinely alright. The next point is that there is no evidence of mass surveillance systems in New Zealand. What I mean is that there is no evidence that internal New Zealand communications are intercepted en masse and processed into metadata or other intelligence. That is what the GCSB helps do to other countries, but not what happens here.
When Police or other Government agencies want to monitor a New Zealander or person within New Zealand, they mostly use a completely separate system. These systems are known in the trade as "LI" (lawful interception) systems. A 2004 law (the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act) made it obligatory for all telcos, Internet service providers (ISPs) and network companies to install interception-capable equipment. This means that when the Police or other agencies want to monitor an individual or group, they can get a warrant, plug into the company's servers via the LI back doors and extract all the specified people's data.
This is the same law enforcement arrangement seen in many similar countries which, like New Zealand, were lobbied in the 1990s and early 2000s by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to introduce the systems. But it is designed for targeted monitoring with a warrant. That's how it is mostly done in New Zealand. It has bad aspects, but nonetheless is more like traditional phone tapping than mass surveillance. Thus the way it is supposed to work is that the GCSB/Five Eyes systems are used on other countries, but only the LI systems are used within New Zealand for investigating crimes and so on.
Stay Tuned For A Convenient Law Change
Then came the War on Terror, when increasingly the US and allied intelligence agencies turned their national security-style systems onto their own citizens. At the same time the growth of the Internet has meant that New Zealanders' communications can often be caught in the spy nets far away. Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders' Internet traffic will be caught in Five Eyes Internet surveillance as it passes over US and British territory and automatically "ingested" into gigantic databases of Internet metadata (a record of who was communicating with whom, when and where.) This doesn't mean New Zealanders are being actively targeted and it doesn't mean that anyone will actively look at most people's data. But it does mean that it is a lie that New Zealanders are not being monitored in GCSB-aided mass surveillance systems.
When John Key assured the public that there was no mass surveillance of New Zealanders, he was referring to tapping of undersea cables. But the place that the GCSB definitely does mass surveillance is satellite communications monitored at Waihopai and that is where New Zealanders are being caught. This is an issue right now. Large numbers of New Zealanders are being inadvertently caught in GCSB mass surveillance systems and by law this should not be occurring. So despite rewriting its laws to legalise the last round of unlawful GCSB monitoring, it appears the GCSB is still unlawfully monitoring a large number of New Zealanders (such as those communicating in the Pacific region).
Following the New Zealand Snowden revelations, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security is currently investigating this situation. The GCSB will be looking for a way to legalise these latest unlawful operations. I suspect that the agencies will use the current far-from-independent Intelligence Review to get a recommendation for a convenient law change. So, sadly, New Zealand has in part caught up with the rest of the world. Our citizens are affected by the Five Eyes surveillance systems like people in all the rest of the world.
No Controls Or Limits On Foreign Spying
But, as I said, if we care about minimising the harm to people we will not overstate it. These systems affect people everywhere but least of all in the Five Eyes nations, including New Zealand. Even where New Zealanders are caught in the net, this is not the same as active targeting and monitoring. We should care far more about the publics and governments of other countries, who are constant targets of the Five Eyes harvest. For them there are no controls and no limits, and in our region it is silently aided by New Zealand through the GCSB.