Brian Rudman: Give public voice in game of I Spy

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The Governments legislation being pushed  through without public debate broadens the rights of New Zealand spy agencies to snoop on New Zealanders and foreigners alike. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Governments legislation being pushed through without public debate broadens the rights of New Zealand spy agencies to snoop on New Zealanders and foreigners alike. Photo / Mark Mitchell

With spies lurking along each twist and turn of the internet, busily scribbling down every dot and dash of information that whooshes past, perhaps it's time to heat up the sealing wax.

For less than $100, there's an Australian mail-order company that will deliver to your door a personalised stamper, some sticks of wax and a device to melt and apply a blob of wax to seal your private despatch.

Of course without a personal courier, there's no guarantee the spooks won't take a peek en route, but at least a broken seal will reveal someone has been snooping.

From the recent revelations of ex-CIA man Edward Snowden, a sealed envelope does seem a more secure method of despatching a private billet doux than relying on the phone or internet.

In its latest instalment of the Snowden files, UK newspaper the Guardian reveals British intelligence agencies lured guest delegates at the 2009 G20 economic summit into fake internet cafes as part of a systematic spying exercise that included hacking into their mobile phones and computers.

The information, processed by a team of 45 analysts, was then shared with high-ranking officials from New Zealand, Britain, Australia and Canada.

The Guardian also reports that British spies undertook a similar exercise at the 2009 Commonwealth heads of government summit in Trinidad, listening in on the communications of their Commonwealth cousins, "to give UK ministers an advantage in talks with their Commonwealth counterparts".

Mr Snowden, now in hiding in Hong Kong, claims the US agencies "hack everyone everywhere ... we are in almost every country in the world ... You are not even aware of what is possible.The extent of their capabilities is horrifying".

The systematic trawling of the internet by intelligence agencies is hardly breaking news. New Zealand whistleblower Nicky Hager warned about it in his 1996 book, Secret Power - New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network. What the Snowden revelations add is the sheer scale of the activity, aided and abetted - often under secret court orders - by all the household names of the internet and global telecommunications, Google, Apple, AT&T, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft and more.

National libraries famously collect a copy of every book and newspaper published. It seems the US intelligence community is trying to trump this by endeavouring to record a copy of every email and phone call ever made, anywhere. Bruce Schneier, who has been investigating cryptography and computer security for two decades, told news agency AT, "you have to assume everything is being collected".

All of which makes the hypocrisy surrounding the recent attacks on Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei rather breathtaking. Already blocked from infrastructure projects in the US, Canada and Australia because of "security concerns", Huawei also came under attack from Labour politicians in New Zealand along the same lines.

Last month, former Labour leader Phil Goff, during a debate on new intelligence legislation, said "maybe the government should be asking itself some questions about why, unlike Australia and the United States, it has accepted Huawei into New Zealand, when that in itself is regarded by two of the countries we work closely with as being a security risk".

This month Labour communications and IT spokeswoman Clare Curran issued a press statement headed "Why the delay for Key to block Huawei?" Perhaps the Chinese cable is broad enough to contain the bugging devices that Mr Goff so fears. But given that our US and UK allies have been at it for decades, it hardly makes their internet infrastructure more protective of our secrets and privacy than that on offer from the Chinese company.

As partners in the Echelon spy network, New Zealand governments of both hues have long been eager participants in the snooping.

Far from being alarmed about the implications to the privacy of individual New Zealanders the recent revelations have thrown up, the Key Government seems set to make the work of the spies, both their own and the overseas variety, even easier.

Legislation the Government is now trying to push through Parliament without public debate broadens the rights of New Zealand spy agencies to snoop on New Zealanders and foreigners alike. In March, the Kitteridge report into the Government Communications Security Bureau revealed New Zealand's external spies had been involved in 56 illegal operations involving spying on 88 New Zealand citizens since 2003. Instead of prosecutions and demands the GCSB stop breaking the law, the Government decided to expand the law to allow the external spies to snoop on locals.

More, the objectives of the GCSB will expand to include not just contributing to the "national security of New Zealand" but "the international relations and well-being of NZ" and "the economic well-being of NZ".

The latter seems a direct steal from the 1994 UK Intelligence Services Act, which presumably gave the British spies the legal right to spy on New Zealand and other delegates to the 2009 Commonwealth heads of government conference.

A public debate in New Zealand over snooping is not going to end it. But surely New Zealanders deserve the right to say whether they want to be part of it.

- NZ Herald

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