The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is making headlines. This is not a common phrase, and from an intelligence perspective, neither is it a good phrase to read.
As the reader may be aware, intelligence agencies appreciate being in the media’s sunlight only as much we enjoy hospital waiting rooms. That is to say, not much at all.
Signals intelligence is not a very common expression among regular people. The contraction SIGINT might flicker some distant memories, perhaps from an old Tom Clancy book.
This is exactly the way these government agencies like it. The less the public hear about them, the more efficient their work can be, or so they say.
The nature of signals intelligence is incredibly secretive. Formed in 1977, GCSB is responsible for collecting signals intelligence or SIGINT in intelligence parlance.
Signals in this sense include communications between people, over many electronic mediums, and other electronic emissions such as radar.
The New Zealand intelligence community is small but very active in the world; its partners are some of the world’s largest agencies in terms of funding.
It may be instructive to learn that New Zealand is part of a coalition of Western-hemisphere signals intelligence agencies called the UKUSA agreement – including Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States – also known as Five Eyes.
Even though the UKUSA agreement is signed by the United States and United Kingdom, New Zealand, as part of the Commonwealth, has used it to base its alliance links and guide the GCSB for over fifty years.
The intention was to forge an intelligence bond around a common national security objective. The world was cut up into five areas of responsibility and each agency was assigned specific signals intelligence targets.
Created for the purpose of sharing intelligence between allies, especially signals intelligence, the UKUSA agreement has streamlined the collection and analysis of simply gargantuan amounts of intercepted data and communications.
There appears to be around 130 known listening stations around the world. Some are huge, such as the Menwith Hill complex in the United Kingdom, and some are small or even functioning automatically.
The agreement standardised terminology, codes, clearances, handling procedures and access to facilities. An exchange of personnel is common but New Zealand is still a secondary partner in this secretive alliance.
The UKUSA agreement is a resolve to spy on all others except the members themselves. If intelligence sharing was to flow freely, a certain amount of trust is required.
Governments of the UKUSA members are very careful to restrain their agencies from spying on their own citizens. Various media outlets this week have underlined New Zealand’s own laws for GCSB in this regard, they are extremely clear.
There is nothing, however, keeping the other members from monitoring their partner’s citizens and quietly handing over that information as part of the UKUSA intelligence sharing agreement.
James Bamford, the American author who has made a distinguished career of spying on the spies, explains in his books that the U.S. Fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorisation Act (FISA) requires that NSA ensures the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Australian and Canadian signals agencies also go to some effort to avoid collecting their citizen’s communications.
This has left a major loophole for UKUSA partners. Other members are still able to use their colleague’s equipment and their own, to wiretap their partner’s citizens.
Because of this, according to Bamford and other authors, the world is completely monitored. There are few black spots without interception, even among the UKUSA agreement parties.
The rules governing a UKUSA member’s own agencies, including the GCSB, do not apply for another member and the agreement ensures those intercepts are passed back once collected.
New Zealand, as a secondary partner, has never acknowledged the existence of the UKUSA agreement. Wellington has no authority to publicise its existence even if it wanted to as it is, strictly speaking, a British and American agreement.
A partnership with various telecommunications industries has secured access to the internet for the UKUSA signals agencies. All traffic on the internet and via emails is reportedly captured and stored.
This monitored traffic comes from all over the world.
The National Security Agency in America is currently constructing an enormous data warehouse in Utah to store the huge volume of internet traffic. Their older storage area at Fort Meade, Maryland simply became full, although this complex is gigantic itself.
Such a Herculean task of analysing the collected material is probably beyond the various agencies’ abilities of their analysts, but having it filed could be useful in the future.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) such as Skype is apparently proving especially difficult to monitor.
Before this September, GCSB was perhaps best known for an attack by protesters on a kevlar ‘radome’ at the listening station in Waihopai Valley in 2008. Of course, GCSB itself is not widely remembered from this event.
So when the curtain is raised, however briefly, to reveal the strings behind government it is always instructive to pay attention.
The protesters certainly displayed fervour and there is understandable public curiosity to learn about intelligence agencies. But it is important to remember that intelligence agencies are full of normal people in somewhat unconventional jobs.
While the decision makers and leaders should be questioned and held to account, the intelligence analysts and collectors are simply working.
But think back to December 16, 2011. Recall your activities and try to remember the weather.
Somewhere in New Zealand at that time GCSB had begun intercepting Kim Dotcom’s communications and would continue to do so for at least another month.
Regardless of the legality of this particular instance, that very same spying process is happening right now. Somewhere in New Zealand the GCSB are currently monitoring the Pacific region’s communications quietly.
GCSB may not be monitoring a New Zealand citizen, and it may well be either perfectly legal or even illegal.
However, GCSB will be part of the important UKUSA agreement and it will continue surveillance unabated as long as there are communications to be intercepted and as long as our intelligence partners need New Zealand assistance.
After a few weeks at most, chances are the secretive government agency GCSB will melt back into the shadows and resume its diligent work.