Anna Crowe: Is this a club we want to be part of?

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We must demand answers on NZ’s role in Five Eyes to ensure important values are upheld.

New Zealand is one of the baddies when it comes to spying. Photo / Getty Images
New Zealand is one of the baddies when it comes to spying. Photo / Getty Images

Since the release of documents by Edward Snowden nearly a year ago, New Zealand has often been seen as a passive participant in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, not unlike a good kid hanging out with the wrong crowd.

However, Snowden documents released last month and the news that New Zealand appears to be sharing intelligence used in drone strikes shows this perception is far from the truth.

The Government is an active participant in this secretive surveillance alliance between the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), our representative, is keyed into US National Security Agency (NSA) programmes that have caused controversy abroad: spying on close allies, mass surveillance of foreign populations and weakening our ability to protect our privacy online.

Sadly, we aren't just following the poor examples of some bullies. We are one of the bad kids.

These revelations shouldn't be surprising. As the references to "NZL" at the bottom of so many Snowden documents indicate, New Zealand is fully integrated into Five Eyes systems.

In light of the Snowden revelations, there are crucial questions the public deserves answers to: what is New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes? What are the benefits and disadvantages? These are not questions the Prime Minister seems prepared to answer.

What emerges from the Snowden revelations and earlier documentation is a picture of an alliance that has operated outside political control and often against the interests of the communities it purports to serve.

The Five Eyes constitutes an integrated network of operations: the whole purpose of the alliance, embodied in its founding documents, is to share information.

Apart from information, the alliance also shares staff: GCSB staff work overseas in partner organisations; NSA staff work in New Zealand at the GCSB.

As the least powerful member of the Five Eyes club, New Zealand is in the weakest position to negotiate the terms of its membership: it is possible the GCSB does not know exactly what information its data collection systems send overseas.

New Zealanders are entitled to know the degree to which the GCSB - a department of the government that operates under New Zealand law - is beholden to a foreign government.

The Five Eyes alliance also creates a system of plausible deniability for politicians faced with awkward questions.

When John Key denies the GCSB conducts mass surveillance of New Zealanders' communications he is following a tactic used by officials in Britain when they discuss the mass surveillance programmes of GCHQ, GCSB's sister agency. They characterise the wholesale interception, collection and storage of personal emails and phone calls as "bulk access" or "bulk collection".

The GCSB appears to have "bulk access" to New Zealanders' communications at the click of a button. This is how the XKeyscore system, which Snowden documents confirmed GCSB staff received training in, operates.

None of New Zealand's laws have any impact on the fact that hundreds of thousands of NSA and GCHQ analysts can almost certainly read New Zealanders' communications without restriction, along with the communications of millions of people living in other countries - a situation GCSB facilitates. This is just one price we pay for membership.

And our reputation as a country that fearlessly pursues an independent foreign policy and promotes respect for human rights is tarnished, perhaps irrevocably.

While New Zealand's participation previously escaped much international notice, moves by the European Union to reconsider whether our laws are adequate to protect European citizens' personal data, because of our involvement in the Five Eyes, indicate this is changing.

Our reputation is further damaged when we support controversial US foreign policy through the GCSB. The Prime Minister confirmed last month New Zealand is "totally comfortable" with passing on intelligence it collects for US drone strike missions, even when it could have been used in the killing of a New Zealand citizen.

The Prime Minister asserted last October he hasn't "bothered to ask" the GCSB whether New Zealand is part of mass surveillance overseas. This blase attitude illustrates the lack of oversight that allows the GCSB to continue to be involved in programmes fundamentally at odds with values New Zealanders hold dear.

It's time to demand answers about GCSB's actions in New Zealand and also abroad. We need to ask ourselves: is the Five Eyes really a club New Zealand should be part of?

Anna Crowe, formerly a New Zealand lawyer, is a Legal Officer for Privacy International, a London-based charity that focuses on the right to privacy.

- NZ Herald

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