One year on: the GCSB

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On 21 August last year, parliament passed a new law expanding the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Many of us had been out on the streets in the days and weeks before this participating in the widespread public protests and opposition to this bill. Unlike most other surveillance or intelligence bills, this one got the attention and opposition of many of the country’s elite: Dame Anne Salmond (New Zealander of the year), Judge David Harvey and QC Dr Rodney Harrison. It was also opposed by some 75% of people in the country, many of whom believed that their own personal communications were part of the mass sweep of metadata and content conducted by the National Security Agency, the GCSB’s sister agency in the US.

A year on, what have we learned, and is anything really going to change?

People had, and still have, very good reason to think that their communications are now subject to regular monitoring by the State. By the time that the GCSB bill became law, Edward Snowden had begun to tell us the story of the myriad programmes run by the NSA to ‘collect it all.’

The leaked documents told us over and over again that New Zealand’s GCSB was privy to the NSA’s programmes. New Zealand is regularly included on the powerpoint presentations, memos and other documents from the NSA. They are also regular attendees at major ‘Signals Intelligence Development’ (SIGDEV) conferences where hundreds of agents get together to discuss the latest in surveillance and spying techniques. We already know from Nicky Hager’s book ‘Other Peoples’ Wars’ that GCSB agents have been in Afghanistan working as signals analysts to feed information to the US military for drone killings.

Here’s a shortlist of things we’ve learned this year about the GCSB:
• We learned that the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) has tapped all the major internet cables across the globe to intercept all traffic;
• we learned that companies including Microsoft, AOL, Apple, Facebook and Google were providing backdoors to the NSA to access their customers’ accounts;
• we learned that the NSA uses fake personas and so-called ‘honey traps’ to plant stories to discredit their ‘targets’ on the internet;
• we learned that prominent Muslim-Americans were targeted by the NSA;
• we learned that the NSA sought to infect millions of computers with virus malware and target systems administrators;
• we learned that human rights organisations were targeted by the NSA;
• we learned that journalists and publications around the world are targeted by the NSA as potentially sympathetic people and places to plant material;
• we learned that the NSA had assisted in drafting New Zealand’s new GCSB law to exploit loopholes to allow for mass surveillance;
• we learned that 88 New Zealanders had been illegally spied on by the GCSB;
• we learned that the GCSB supplied intelligence about New Zealander Daryl Jones who was murdered in a US drone strike in Yemen;
• we learned that TOR and encryption work to protect our privacy from the State

So we have learned a lot in the year since the GCSB bill became law. The list of things we haven’t learned, unfortunately, is much longer and much more troubling. It includes not knowing who the 88 people are who were illegally spied on by the GCSB; what NSA programmes the GCSB is using and for what purpose; what information was supplied by the GCSB about Daryl Jones; and are there other people who have been targeted for assassination based on information provided by the GCSB. The list of unanswered questions gets longer, not shorter, the more we find out about the Five Eyes’ activities.

In a sense, the question that really matters is will anything really change as a result of the knowledge we now have? Unfortunately, if history provides us with some precedent, then the answer is not really.

In 1975 in the US, the Senate’s Church Committee into agencies including the CIA and NSA tackled issues such as targeted assassinations, wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens partly in response to Watergate. Fast-forward to the post-9/11 environment and what we have is not only the exponential growth of these agencies, but the legal and technological capacity to harvest and share vast amounts of data in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act signed into law in 2004 by George W. Bush. We also now have drone assassinations that the US government claims are legal.

The growth of what has been described as the ‘National Security State’ and the ‘black budget’ in the United States is really unparalleled anywhere in the world simply for the sheer scale of it. But New Zealand’s intelligence and security apparatus has been growing rapidly in that same period with again exponential growth in staff numbers and resources – and significant assistance with legislative changes including a new SIS Act and two GCSB Acts within the 13 years since 9/11.

Similarly the creation of the ‘Intelligence Community’ which includes the GCSB, SIS, the National Assessments Bureau and the Intelligence Coordinate Group (the latter two both based in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) as a distinct entity with a shared statement of intent is a clear indication of that the differences with the US are really matters of degree, not kind.

The most recent review leaves the distinct feeling that these agencies don’t know what they are doing or why. The extremely troubling questions about the GCSB’s powers and access to NSA programmes are growing, not abating. One year on from a law allowing mass surveillance and GCSB assistance to the SIS, Police and Defence Force, we appear to have an even less accountable, even more out-of-control intelligence apparatus than ever before.

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