The big picture: Who precisely is monitoring us, and is the GCSB in cahoots?

The destruction of Dotcom’s credibility last night is a real shame, not because I have any great sympathy for the man (I don’t), but because the wrecking ball that just swung back and collected him will now distract for the very important questions that were raised last night by Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden.

Together, they presented a coherent case that strongly argues that New Zealanders are indeed subject to mass surveillance. Here’s what Edward Snowden wrote at Greenwald’s website, The Intercept:

If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched. 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. I know this because it was my full-time job in Hawaii, where I worked every day in an NSA facility with a top secret clearance.

John Key, on the other hand, says Greenwald and Snowden are wrong. He says a business case was developed by the GCSB, in which they sought to conduct mass surveillance, but Cabinet refused to grant approval.

So here’s the thing. I don’t disbelieve Edward Snowden when he says he was able to he was able to read the electronic correspondence of New Zealanders when he worked at the NSA. Snowden’s credibility and veracity are well and truly intact. What then, is XKEYSCORE, and how certain can Snowden be that New Zealand data are being fed through it? Here’s Snowden again:

Actual pictures and classified documentation of XKEYSCORE are available online now, and their authenticity is not contested by any government. Within them you’ll find that the XKEYSCORE system offers, but does not require for use, something called a “Five Eyes Defeat,” the Five Eyes being the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and yes, New Zealand.

This might seem like a small detail, but it’s very important. The Five Eyes Defeat is an optional filter,  a single checkbox. It allows me, the analyst, to prevent search results from being returned on those countries from a particular search. Ask yourself: why do analysts have a checkbox on a top secret system that hides the results of mass surveillance in New Zealand if there is no mass surveillance in New Zealand?


It means they have the ability [to] see every website you visit, every text message you send, every call you make, every ticket you purchase, every donation you make, and every book you order online. From “I’m headed to church” to “I hate my boss” to “She’s in the hospital,” the GCSB is there. Your words are intercepted, stored, and analyzed by algorithms long before they’re ever read by your intended recipient.

The question then becomes, how does the NSA (and, presumably, the intelligence services in the UK, Canada and Australia) access New Zealand’s electronic communications? Is our Government aware of how it happens, merely turning a blind eye? Is the GCSB complicit in any way, shape or form?

John Key’s assurances that the GCSB does not and never has engaged in any mass surveillance of New Zealanders may well be correct. Greenwald and Snowden’s case last night was circumstantial only. There was no hard evidence that the GCSB has had direct involvement in mass surveillance.

Nonetheless, it’s equally possible that John Key is playing semantic games. “Never engaged in mass surveillance against New Zealanders” may well mean “But we helped set it up for the NSA”.

Here’s Tim Watkin on the issue of semantics, writing at Pundit:

But much of the devil in this debate is in the precise meaning of the words involved.

Such as “mass”. What is mass? How many New Zealanders need to be spied on for it to be mass, or “wholesale” as the Prime Minister likes to say? What Snowden considers “mass”, Key may not.

And what is “surveillance”? Not wire tapping every phone or trawling through every email. We’re talking about metadata – names, times, addresses. The stuff Snowden says as an analyst he found more compelling and useful because “it does not lie”.

And there’s even “fact”. How much is memory and likelihood and best guesses and how much proven evidence? How much is the complete truth and how much just the truth that’s been recorded and put on paper?

So could the cable and its New Zealand traffic still be under surveillance at the other end of the pipe, ie not “in New Zealand”? The Southern Cross Cable CEO says no, who is a strong source, but can Key be as unequivocal about the integrity of the cable along its entire length?

John Key still has a great many questions that need answering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that any coherent answers are likely before Saturday the 20th of September.


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