Is state cyber surveillance becoming a major political issue in New Zealand?

Could it be an election issue in 2014?

Next year's general election could have parties of the left campaigning to take New Zealand out of the Western cyber spying alliance. This would parallel the 1984 election, in which the Labour Party - egged on by an anti-nuclear movement - promised to ban nuclear ships from our harbours.

It may seem unlikely that the ephemeral issue of state cyber spying could grab the hearts and minds of voters and the idea of a Labour-led government instigating such a conflict with the US and isolating itself seems far-fetched. After all, the anti-imperialist struggles of 30 years ago have dissipated and the Labour Party of 2014 will be incredibly different to that of 1984.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the issue of state cyber surveillance is becoming politicised, and partisan lines are shaping up. In today's article by David Fisher, Secret network 'has to be in probe', both Labour and the Greens promise to review New Zealand's involvement in the 'Five Eyes' (or 'Echelon') alliance of Anglo-Saxon countries that share surveillance information. Both parties are already committed to holding an independent review of New Zealand's intelligence agencies, and we now know that this will include an evaluation of whether to pull out of the Prism-related spy arrangement.

The growing politicisation of state cyber spying is a natural outcome of 1) the fact that the GCSB has been at the centre of numerous scandals over the last year, and 2) the international expose of the role of the United States' National Security Agency in allegedly sifting through billions of people's online activity. The most comprehensive and authoritative coverage of the NSA spying scandal can be found on the British Guardian's page: The NSA Files.

Many have been wondering this week if New Zealanders are routinely spied upon by the United States' NSA? International reports would suggest that we are and many journalists and commentators asking the Government whether it receives such information about us from the US. The logical answer is that it surely does - that seems to be exactly what programmes like Prism are intended for. When asked, Prime Minister John Key gave an ambiguous answer. Toby Manhire takes this issue up in his excellent column, Step up, Mr Dunne, become a hero, saying 'It is inconceivable that such sharing does not include Prism. John Key has not denied that it does. Indeed, the carefully crafted prime ministerial response to any question on New Zealand agencies, the NSA and Prism has been repeated so often this week it's become an earworm. What-I-can-tell-you-is-we-don't-ask-foreign-intelligence-agencies-to-act-in-any-way-that-circumvents-the-law. That's all you're getting. Everything else, apparently, is an "operational matter".' Manhire says, that this all amounts to a fancy way of avoiding saying 'yes'. For more on this evasion, see the blogposts by No Right Turn: No denial from Key and "No comment" is not good enough.

Manhire also draws attention to Parliament's current consideration of two major legislation issues covering the NZ spy agencies: 'These are not legislative tweaks. According to civil liberties advocate Thomas Beagle, the New Zealand changes could even equip our agencies with powers that outstrip those in America, giving the GCSB "practically unlimited capacity to intercept New Zealand communications".' The answer, according to Manhire, is to hold 'a broad-ranging, non-partisan inquiry of New Zealand's spy agencies and operations'. Manhire has also covered the proposed legislation in another very good recent column, Spy bill papering over cracked masonry.

So should New Zealand be pulling out of US-led Prism and 'Five Eyes' spy sharing arrangement? If current domestic concerns about the GCSB continue, and if there are further scandals involving the US Prism system, then there will be increasing calls for New Zealand to pull out of the alliance. Perhaps the closure of the Waihope spy station might finally make it onto the political agenda.

Libertarian economics academic Eric Crampton is an opponent of such state surveillance, but suggests that to pull out might be worse for New Zealand: 'If anything, being outside of the NSA / Five Eyes arrangement could make things worse rather than better. A loyal reader who should know about these things rather strongly insists that NZ's leaving that partnership would make it much easier for NSA to snoop on Kiwis. I expect that he's right. Our pulling out of that arrangement would likely result (my guess, not his) in a snooping box being installed somewhere along the line after the termination ends of the undersea cables that connect us to the world. NZ has direct connections only to Sydney and Hawaii' - see: Faint hope. Similarly, former GCSB director Bruce Ferguson argues that we would lose a lot if we were not involved in the cyber sharing alliance - see David Fisher's Ex-spy boss: Intelligence trade-offs keep NZ free.

But do New Zealanders even care about state surveillance? According to Chris Trotter, we apparently used to, but no longer: 'Thirty-six years ago Rob Muldoon's plans to expand the surveillance powers of the Security Intelligence Service were met with huge demonstrations. No such protests greeted the legislation which has, over the course of the last 12 years, dangerously extended the surveillance powers of the state' - see: Whistle-blower reveals perils of giving up privacy.

Gordon Campbell argues that we are on a 'runaway train of state surveillance', and it's the fault of both Labour and National who have entered into a consensus on security and civil liberties: 'On security and surveillance matters, the two major parties, especially since 9/11, have spoken virtually as one'. Campbell says that typically centre right parties have 'no interest whatsoever in defending civil rights', but that 'centre left governments seem to be just as prone to pandering on defence/intelligence issues'. He points to the Clark Government as being particularly gung ho: 'The last Labour government gave the Defence Establishment everything it asked for and more besides, diligently promoted Anzac Day celebrations, and colluded with Winston Peters in supporting the SIS in its bumbling persecution of Ahmed Zaoui' - see: On why everyone has a stake in surveillance reduction. And, then, of course there's the Clark Government's rather draconian 2001 Terrorism Suppression Act.

Chris Trotter suggests today that a reason that state surveillance won't become a major political issue is that the public has become indoctrinated by television spy dramas that portray state cyber hacking as positive: 'The heroes of these top-rating shows (both of which grew out of post-9/11 collaboration between Hollywood and the US national security agencies) are presented to us as the exemplars of courage and decency. Whether it be 24's Jack Bauer or NCIS's Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, the message delivered to Anglo-Saxon viewers around the world is simple and compelling: "The US Government has got our back. These are the good guys who stand between us and the evil-doers." In every episode we witness these "good guys" - or their geeky side-kicks - routinely hacking into people's computer hard-drives and tapping into their phone conversations/records' - see: Whistle-blower reveals perils of giving up privacy.

Currently it's the Green Party that is making the strongest stand on state cyber surveillance. See for instance Adam Bennett's Greens accuse PM of spying plan. And Russell Norman has been aggressively challenging the role played by internet technology firms operating in New Zealand, leading Tom Pullar-Strecker to write this account: Drury and Norman clash over spy claims. For more, see Chris Keall's Rod Drury, Russel Norman go at it on Twitter over Palantir and Are Palantir spooks?

The problem for the Greens in campaigning on cyber spying, is that the party has set itself opposed to those that leaked the GCSB report, and has called for criminal investigations against them, leading Chris Trotter to write a harsh critique of the Greens and Labour in: Situation Normal - All F*cked Up. In fact, Trotter has also argued that The only offence for which Peter Dunne is being punished is getting caught.

The leaking of the GCSB report has got many thinking about the ethics of whistleblowing. The Dominion Post has argued strongly, Don't shoot the whistleblower, along with media academic expert James Hollings. He says that the current Protected Disclosure Act of 2000 is apparently not working - see: Whistleblowers 'very important' - expert. Other New Zealand journalists are coming out to praise those who leak - see Martin van Beynen's Why I'm a big fan of whistleblowers.

Although the recent GCSB leak - allegedly involving Peter Dunne - has been incredibly controversial, Selwyn Manning raises another more serious leak in his very thoughtful blogpost, For Honour, Principle Or Personal Gain - Will New Zealand's Real Leakers and Moles Step Forward? There's been some important items on the issue in the blogosphere - especially The Standard's Networks of influence: Key, Peter Thiel & the GCSB and Russell Brown covered some of the issues in his in-depth Media3 show on the cyber spying story - which you can watch here. Also, one 'cloud-computing consultant', Ian Apperley, explains How I learned to stop worrying and love Prism.

For the most authoritative accounts about state cyber surveillance, and to get a full picture of the current situation, the must-read journalist of the moment is the Herald's David Fisher. So it's also well worth reading his other recent stories: US spy device 'tested on NZ public', Dotcom papers cited as spy link, Report on GCSB changed from 'sensitive' to 'sanitised', and Trust in secret agencies is wearing thin. But if you're after an even more sinister conspiracy theory about how leaks are occurring in New Zealand politics - try Steve Braunias' Secret Diary of Winston Peters.