Many New Zealanders will not feel scandalised by the Herald's revelations about their country's spying in the Pacific. They will be more inclined to applaud the activities of the Government Communications Security Bureau and its involvement in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

There is, after all, yet to be conclusive evidence that what has been done, and is being done, is against the law. Spying, even on friends, is far from novel.

All that, however, does not mean such information should have remained behind closed doors. These disclosures are significant in confirming what many people assumed was happening and, most importantly, for the insight, some of it disturbing, contained in the detail.

Of particular note is the scale and nature of the spying. Information from across the Pacific is collected by the GCSB and sent on to the United States' National Security Agency. Much of this has nothing to do with terrorism or threats to New Zealand's security.

Advertisement

Rather, it involves more mundane information pertaining to the likes of politics and commerce. In a few cases, such as China's activities in Fiji and Tonga, this may be justified. Overall, however, the lack of discrimination in the information-gathering confirms the worst fears of the spy agencies' critics.

During the Key Government's time, those agencies have made full use of technology that enables them not only to intercept email, phone and social media communications more easily but to amass huge catalogues of computer records of calls made.

They have chosen to use this technology in a catch-all manner, presumably simply because they can. New Zealand has nothing to fear from the vast majority of Pacific nations. They are friends. Yet these allies have become targets of the spying. In the process, New Zealanders in the Pacific must also have been included in the surveillance, a breach of the GCSB's mandate.

It is unlikely that the disclosure will cause Pacific nations to stamp their feet quite so publicly as Germany's Angela Merkel did when the NSA's ability to monitor the phone calls of European leaders was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. But in private they will make their feelings known.

New Zealand reassurances, along the lines, say, of stressing the value to all of knowing what China is up to, will go only so far. But in the end, Pacific leaders will have to accept that the Prime Minister has decided that, in the interests of national security, membership of the Five Eyes "club", alongside the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, is more important than their sensitivities.

John Key will not expect too great a backlash from the New Zealand public, either. He will expect that, like him, they take a laid-back attitude to the activities of our spy agencies. Those agencies have got away with telling the public much less than their Five Eyes partners about their work.

Therein lies the importance of this disclosure. New Zealanders should be told as much as is possible.

Now, at least, they are in a position to assess whether their country should be involved in information-gathering so all-encompassing in nature and scale.

Advertisement