The world's most wanted whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has told us something from his refuge in Russia that we had a right to know. During his work for the United States National Security Agency, Mr Snowden said, he routinely came across internet communications of New Zealanders that he believes came from a tap on the Southern Cross cable linking this country to the others. He believes New Zealanders are under "mass surveillance" by the Government Communications Security Bureau involving the monitoring and storage not only of metadata (who contacts who, when and from where) but permitting access to the content of private messages.
This contradicts previous assurances from the Prime Minister, which he has repeated in response to Mr Snowden's contribution to the election campaign. "There is not and never has been a cable access surveillance programme operating in New Zealand," said Mr Key on Monday. "There is not and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB."
He believes Mr Snowden has misunderstood references to what in fact is a cybersecurity protection programme that the Government approved for the GCSB last year. Mr Key has revealed that when it was first proposed he was concerned that it would be seen as mass surveillance and had it scaled down. He has released declassified Cabinet papers showing that the project is limited to communications with companies and public bodies that want protection from cyber attacks.
Hence the country is better informed than it might have been but for the efforts of Kim Dotcom to discredit the Prime Minister. It is not the bombshell Mr Dotcom had promised for the final week of the election campaign - that turned out to be an email purporting to be from Warner Bros' chief executive Kevin Tsujihara that, if true, would suggest Mr Key knew of Mr Dotcom before Mr Key says he did. Mr Tsujihara says the email is a fake, Mr Key cannot recall any such conversation with him, and Mr Dotcom is refusing to answer questions about it.
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The issue of when the Prime Minister first became aware of the German national is of no importance to anything except, it seems, Mr Dotcom's attempt to avoid extradition. To imagine that the election might have turned on Mr Key's recollection of him was the height of conceit. Mr Dotcom's credibility has dropped even faster than his party's standing in opinion polls. Its single sitting candidate, Hone Harawira, is now so dogged by association with Mr Dotcom that he might not hold his seat.
But the internet impresario's "moment of truth" on Monday night had its value. Mr Snowden, on screen, and US journalist Glenn Greenwald, in person, gave value for their host's money. The Pulitzer Prize winner, hardly the "loser" Mr Key called him, was well enough briefed on this country to know that new GCSB legislation was under intense public discussion at the very time, it now turns out, the agency was proposing the cybersecurity system that raised the Prime Minister's concerns about mass surveillance.
Greenwald and others say he should have shared those concerns with the public at the time. Had he done so it might have been to his advantage. He chose not to publicise the cybersecurity proposals at that time, so why has he done so now? If details of intelligence-gathering can be declassified when it suits the Prime Minister, it raises the question of how much this sort of information is classified unnecessarily.
Our intelligence agencies tell the public much less than their "Five Eyes" allies appear to do. Their reports to Parliament are insultingly scant. They answer only to prime ministers. If the next government, whatever its composition, makes the agencies more openly accountable, Mr Dotcom will deserve some credit. Let us give him that.
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