A sense of deja vu accompanies the latest spy scandal in New Zealand politics. Haven't we been here before? Wasn't the experience of spying revelations during the 2014 general election enough to show that the public isn't really concerned about the investigations of journalists such as Nicky Hager and Glenn Greenwald? Last year's Dirty Politics and Moment of Truth (featuring Edward Snowden) confirmed that mainstream New Zealanders don't necessarily give a damn about the more abstract issues of 'how politics really works', the integrity of government, or civil liberties. So will they care about the latest frontpage spying scandal?
There's certainly a huge response on Twitter today. The liberal twitterati is in full flight with critiques and clever put downs of the Government's alleged surveillance arrangements - see my blog post of Top tweets about #snowdenNZ. But perhaps the whole hashtag motif of #snowdenNZ also gives the game away - it's a Twitteratti-type issue rather than something for mainstream New Zealanders.
Reaction from the right
Typifying the response from the political right, Mike Hosking suggests that the public will share his boredom about the issue: "I doubt many give a 'monkeys'. One of the great lessons of the election campaign was that when it comes to spying and dirty deeds in politics, Nicky Hager and his conspiracy mates made no difference whatsoever" - see: Spying back in the headlines.
Others have questioned how much the revelations really do reveal. David Farrar simply responds: "What a stunning revelation. An agency whose mandate is primarily to collection foreign intelligence, collects foreign intelligence" - see: This is the big revelation?.
The NBR's Rob Hosking continues in this vein: "So. It seems we have a spying agency which, we learned today, spies on foreigners. If anyone is surprised, let alone shocked, by this, they really are too gentle a soul for this cruel world. Spying on foreigners is pretty much what comes on the label when you set up a spying agency. It's what they do" - see: Spying revelations: sorting the substance from the silliness (paywalled).
Hosking also points out that it shouldn't be a surprise that New Zealand spies on its so-called friends: "those friends have some rather dubious friends and matters such as money laundering of criminal and terrorist activity is a key part of law enforcement these days".
The official governmental response has been interesting, labeled by media expert Russell Brown as a case of Defame and deflect. Brown says that "John Key took what now seems to be standard approach to impending journalism: to defame the journalist". He views Key's approach as cynical and strange, and suggests "we can expect a range of official contortions as this story unfolds over the next few days".
See also, David Fisher's Snowden revelations: John Key failing leadership test with terrorists-under-the-bed response.
Rachel Smalley is also critical of Key's response: "I would much prefer some measured clarification from our prime minister. it would surely be better than the mocking, ridiculing approach that he's using at the moment - and his constant referencing of the Islamic State ideology as the justification for everything we are doing right now" - see: Spying revelations unsurprising.
Smalley also professes a lack of surprise about the revelations and suggests they'll have little impact: "Still, such is Key's popularity; much of New Zealand will accept what he says and move on. These revelations today won't exercise the country. We simply don't care enough about spying. We really don't. Many of us adopt the 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' approach. Ultimately this is what we do to be part of the club".
What's really new?
So are the Snowden revelations about New Zealand really nothing to be concerned about? In fact, there are some very important new allegations and issues raised.
The documents show that the spying is significantly more in depth than we previously believed. Rather than just recording the metadata, the GSCB is 'hoovering up' everything. All communications are being included in what the documents call 'full-take collection'. This is best explained in the central new article - Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher's Herald piece, The price of the Five Eyes club: Mass spying on friendly nations and sending vast amounts of intelligence to NSA.
On this point, Danyl Mclauchlan says "we didn't know it was mass surveillance, and we didn't know that all of the data was simply forwarded to the US. The argument for the GCSB's activities has always been that it safeguards our regional security interests. But now we know that its primary function is diplomatic" - see: And we're off.
New Zealand's exploitation of the Pacific
The central outcome of the latest revelations is the idea that New Zealand plays a hostile role within the South Pacific, and effectively exploits its Pacific neighbours. This goes against the long-running notion that New Zealand plays a benevolent role in its "sphere of interest".
Hager says the documents show that New Zealand has really "sold out our neighbours, big time, to the US intelligence agencies" - see Aimee Gulliver's Nicky Hager: NZ spying to secure our place in the 'club'. He suggests that those countries are now entitled to "feel pretty cheated".
This could therefore lead to some significant problems for New Zealand's relationships in the region. As David Fisher says, "Similar revelations of spying on friendly nations abroad have caused diplomatic rifts" - see: Leaked documents show New Zealand spies on its Pacific friends and sends the data to the US.
But, for an in-depth counterview, see long-time Pacific affairs journalist Michael Field's New Zealand right to spy on Pacific Island neighbours. He says that the severe problems of the region means that it's entirely proper that New Zealand keeps a watch on all activity there.
See also, Field's report, Snowden docs show Digicel hampering spying.
Serving elite interests
The latest revelations raise many important questions about power in the world, and whose political and economic interests are being served by New Zealand's advancing intelligence exercises.
This is nicely discussed by Danyl Mclauchlan in his blog post, And we're off: "this is an area in which 'national interest' and the interests of politicians, diplomats and intelligence elites blur into each other.
If you're the Prime Minister or the head of the GCSB, or MFAT, then participation in this club is a huge win. Key gets to go to the White House and play golf with Obama. Our spies get access to global information networks.... But it seems more likely - to me - that the benefits go to members of our political elite and the rhetoric about 'keeping us safe' is mostly nonsense".
Rob Hosking, despite having some reservations about the freshness of the revelations, does believe they raise challenging questions about national sovereignty: "to what extend is the GCSB working for New Zealand, or working for other countries? One does not have to be a knee-jerk anti-American (and this writer is certainly not anti-American) to appreciate New Zealand is its own country, with our own interests and values. If the GCSB is simply and solely a kind of electronic letter box for the US government, that is a cause for legitimate concern for New Zealanders" - see: Spying revelations: sorting the substance from the silliness (paywalled).
Are New Zealanders now vulnerable to mass surveillance?
Rob Hosking also has concerns about the Government's protection of civil liberties, given the expansion of GCSB activities revealed by the Snowden documents: "there is the question of oversight... if a government agency is - as it clearly has done - is now undertaking the kind of surveillance on the scale in which one would expect in today's world, there needs to be a stepped up level of independent oversight to match the increased spying activity". He says that "such vigilance" especially needs to be applied if the GCSB "is acting, as it appears to be, at least as much for other governments as it is for our own".
This is also the main problem that Danyl Mclauchlan has with what has been revealed. He doesn't have a problem with surveillance of the Pacific countries in principle, but the fact that the GCSB is becoming so powerful without the necessary oversight and protection of citizens: "the agencies themselves seem untrustworthy. The oversight is inadequate. Last year we found out that the head of the SIS was passing on misleading information to political staffers in the Prime Minister's office to discredit the leader of the opposition. These security agencies have incredible powers. They justify them on the basis that they're 'keeping us safe'. Nothing we know about them suggests that they do anything of the kind. Everything we do know about them involves them lying to us and abusing their powers" - see: GCSB in the Pacific.
And are the apparent activities of the GCSB even legal? Blogger No Right Turn challenges this in his post, Spying on our friends. He examines the legislation and asks "what safeguards the GCSB has in place to ensure that the communications of New Zealand persons collected from around the Pacific are not disclosed to the NSA in violation of s14(2)(b) Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003?".
See also No Right Turn's follow up post, Unscreened.
And for more dissident analysis, see long-time civil liberties and leftwing activist (and former MP) Keith Locke's blog post, The reasons why New Zealand's comprehensive spying on Pacific states is wrong.
Finally, for an idea of how cartoonist are satirising this and other recent state surveillance issues, see my blog post, Cartoons about #snowdenNZ and other spy issues.
Debate on this article is now closed.