David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Private spying company hosts conference for NZ intelligence community

The programme for next week's conference includes a presentation on mining large sets of data. File photo / Thinkstock
The programme for next week's conference includes a presentation on mining large sets of data. File photo / Thinkstock

One of the world's largest private sector spying companies is funding a conference-and-cocktail gathering of the cream of the New Zealand intelligence community.

But spy bosses won't say whether they contract the company in case its staff are "targeted by foreign intelligence agencies''.

Palantir Technologies won the awe of the United States' intelligence community when it developed tools for large-scale data-mining, earning itself acclaim as "the War on Terror's Secret Weapon''.

It set up shop in Wellington last year, advertising for an "embedded analyst'' who was needed "to support our Palantir Government client base''.

Its presence in New Zealand emerged as our intelligence community found calls for greater openness and oversight coincided with world-wide alarm over the scale of surveillance.

The Prime Minister has already refused to answer questions about whether the company works for our intelligence agencies. John Key is known to have met with billionaire owner Peter Thiel but denied speaking about intelligence issues.

While Mr Key's refusals for details on Palantir were repeated yesterday, the Herald discovered a recent NZ Defence Force publication stating: "Palantir intelligence software is in use with a number of our domestic and foreign partners.''

Palantir Technologies NZ is one of two "platinum'' sponsors for next week's gathering of the New Zealand Institute of Intelligence Professionals. The institute's 2011 accounts show it collected $27,500 in sponsorship.

A spokesman for the institute said it aimed to be a "positive influence" on the intelligence community by providing "support, advice and opportunities" to " improve intelligence practice in and for New Zealand".

He said the sponsorship from Palantir, and other private companies, was in line with the way other non-profit and volunteer bodies operated. "In our context 'intelligence' is best defined as an organisation's ability to analyse and understand its information and act on that understanding."

The programme for the conference includes a presentation on mining large sets of data. It has retired senior FBI assistant director Louis Grever speaking on tools used for "detecting the whispers of behavioural intention from the mass of public source information''. Other talks include behavioural analysis and cyber-crime.

The conference's other platinum sponsor Wynyard Group - a competitor to Palantir - has also developed powerful data-mining tools for intelligence and law enforcement bodies.

Wynyard spokeswoman Saya Wahrlich said the company sponsored conferences around the world in industries in which its technology was used. Asked about NZ intelligence agencies, she said: "Customers we can talk about, we talk about.''

GCSB director Ian Fletcher refused to say what private companies were contracted to work for the bureau. He said doing so would allow people to work out what the bureau could do - and "put employees of those companies at risk of being targeted by foreign intelligence agencies''.

US-based Palantir did not respond to calls for comment.

The GCSB is seeking an extension of its powers through new legislation - including legal changes which would allow it to carry out domestic surveillance and harvest large quantities of data.

Support for the new law sits on a knife edge while the Green Party and Labour Party demand an inquiry into the intelligence agencies.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the funding of the institute by Palantir showed its intent on being a part of the New Zealand intelligence community. He said its presence would be necessary if New Zealand was looking at developing or using a mass-surveillance system.

In a statement, the institute said support through sponsorship mirrored that of most non-profit organisations. It said the body aimed at being a "positive influence" on the intelligence community. "In our context "intelligence" is best defined as an organisation's ability to analyse and understand its information and act on that understanding."

- NZ Herald

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