It has now been established that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has been systematically collecting the phone records of millions of Americans.
A relevant question for New Zealanders is whether the NSA has been passing some of this phone data on to our Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
There are several indications that this may be so.
Firstly, the NSA and the GCSB are known to exchange information through an intelligence network called Five Eyes - which also included the British Government Communications Headquarters, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment and the Australian Defence Signals Directorate.
We also know the NSA and the GCSB pay particular attention to "metadata", which includes phone call data such as who called who, at what times, and how long the conversations lasted.
The latest revelations in the United States are largely about this "metadata". In April, Judge Vinson, of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, ordered Verizon (one of the largest US telephone companies) to give the NSA "on a ...daily basis" electronic copies of "all call detail records or 'telephony metadata'."
In March, the Kitteridge report confirmed that our GCSB had provided "metadata" on some of the 88 New Zealanders spied upon between 2003 and 2012 in support of 55 Security Intelligence Service operations and one Police operation.
Last month, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Paul Neazor, analysed these 56 operations and concluded (according to the summary provided by GCSB director Ian Fletcher) that 34 out of the 56 operations "involved the [GCSB's] collection of metadata".
This poses the question of what "added value" this GCSB metadata provided to these predominantly SIS operations, given that SIS warrants give that agency its own access to New Zealand telecom call data.
The probable answer is that the GCSB's contribution was international phone and email metadata relevant to SIS's targets supplied by its four Five Eyes partners, with the NSA being the main provider. A small proportion of this metadata may also have come from the GCSB's own asset, the Waihopai spy base, which intercepts non-military communications passing through two geostationary satellites over the Pacific equator.
What is worrying about the attention being given by the SIS and GCSB to the 85 New Zealanders identified in the Kitteridge report is that not a single one of them seems to have broken the law. Mr Fletcher says in a May 21 press statement that "no arrest, prosecution or any other legal processes have occurred as a result of the information supplied to the NZSIS by the GCSB".
This suggests that many of the New Zealanders the SIS and GCSB are targeting, such as new migrants from Islamic countries, are not really potential criminals and shouldn't be attracting such attention from our spy agencies.
It may be that the agendas of both the SIS and the GCSB are driven by an overblown perception of a security threat, resulting in an excessive intrusion on the privacy and communications of innocent New Zealanders.
This overreaction may be in part a result of New Zealand's close association with US spy agencies, which tend to exaggerate the danger of terrorism, and treat people's right to privacy as a secondary matter.
For example, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said recently that the collection of every citizen's phone information is necessary "because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications" (Guardian, June 7, 2013). We should press our government to rule out any such comprehensive phone data collection here. The message should be that it is not acceptable and would violate our Privacy Act.
We should also be wary of extending the powers of the GCSB, as a Bill before Parliament seeks to do, when we know so little about the relationship between our electronic spy agency and the NSA.
There could be damage to New Zealand's reputation as an independent player if the GCSB is seen to be adopting the targets and overly intrusive methods of the NSA - by virtue of being so closely tied in with the Five Eyes network.
In trying to sell the Bill to the public, Prime Minister John Key has been playing up the GCSB's cyber-security role. This is a useful service to the public. However, it is only a small part of what the GCSB is doing.
It is ironic that at the same time as GCSB is helping ensure the confidentiality of government communications, it may be collaborating with a foreign agency, the NSA, which is breaching the confidentiality of communications between its citizens by ensuring that their phone records are passed on to government agencies.
Former MP Keith Locke was the Green Party's spokesman on intelligence and security issues.