Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The realities of spying on foreigners

Over the past 500 days or so since Mr Snowden, the spying issue has become so muddled it’s really hard to keep up for most people. Suffice to say, there's a big difference between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering.

The former is under heavy debate in Five Eyes countries for good reason. But the latter has never been up for debate. There is no other way to ensure that a country is safe without spying on friends and enemies. There is also no such thing as a friendly intelligence service. The GCSB’s interests are not at odds with the rest of New Zealand - the GCSB is New Zealand. The agency is full of Kiwis who do their job for the sole purpose of keeping this country safe.

What’s becoming more difficult with every leaked document is painting the Five Eyes group as a rogue or malicious enterprise. So far, the worst of Mr Snowden's documents have been of a programme that overstepped the extremely high regulations for individual privacy in the United States fewer than 100 times in more than a decade.

His documents outlining foreign intelligence collection simply show how clever the multinational group actually is in the task of gathering material outside the group. None of them break any domestic laws doing this, because they are spying on foreign countries with different laws, and because everybody spies on everybody.

Again, there’s a big difference between domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance. If the GCSB was spying on New Zealanders and Mr Snowden had documents proving it, wouldn’t you think he would have released those by now? The silence is deafening. Unless new info emerges, it really does appear that the partnership was doing its job the whole time - just on a scale we had no idea about.

One contact of mine recently talked about his days as a protester during the 1980s. During one of his group's jaunts, they attempted to hack (with actual shears) through the outer chainlink perimeter of the Waihopai satellite downlink base. He claims we was stopped by the base security force because "the GCSB sent the red squad against us and banned all media coverage of the break in. They were desperate that New Zealanders not find out about the base and its purpose."

The reason, I submit, that the security team didn’t want my contact breaking into Waihopai was not so that the New Zealand public wouldn’t know the base's function, but because everyone else on the planet - friends and adversaries alike - would likely know too.

Imagine how excited the Soviets would have been to see inside the base as the images ran on New Zealand television! My contact would have felt happy; the Russians would have been overjoyed. I’d suggest that the authorities couldn’t give two cents about the protest. There was a much bigger, and older, game being played.

Domestic surveillance is under debate in this country because the enemy is increasingly part of the citizenry (terrorism, criminals, etc) and uses the same communication paths that the innocent public uses. In order to catch these people, the GCSB and others need to be watching the same internet cables used by everyone else. This means they will be encounter private emails of citizens occasionally, there’s no way around it.

The debate is over how much we want the intelligence agencies protecting us in this way, and how much we want them respecting our privacy. These truly are good Kiwis looking for the balance between privacy and security in a highly changed communications environment.

I’m not saying all Kiwis are good, but I am saying there is a utility for the GCSB to monitor the communications travelling over the internet system, some of which may pass through New Zealand from time to time.

Again, there’s no proof that the GCSB or the NSA is gathering New Zealand internet traffic, but because they are not, that should be counted as a strike against good security. It's a sacrifice we're apparently willing to make to retain some arbitrary level of privacy.

It’s also really easy to say the GCSB is “in the pockets of the Americans”. But that’s simply not true. We cooperate on a project which aims to keep the members of the Five Eyes safe. It is a job we do together. Some members are more powerful than others, but that does not translate into bullying or “purchasing” of the other members to do the American's bidding. That’s a narrative that has been thoroughly disproven by the very documents Mr Snowden has released. He has no proof the US is bossing NZ, GBR, CAN and AUS around.

what about the privacy of the rest of the world's countries? The only people who deserve a reasonable expectation of privacy are the citizens of the Five Eyes countries. The ones covered by the constitution and laws of those Five Eyes countries. In the current system of international relations, there is no room for warm fuzzy feelings about how we’re all just humans at the end of the day.

There are people and nations out there that do not want to see the US and its allies succeed. This is the reality. This is why these spying programmes are in place. We have never needed a warrant to spy on foreign people. We only need warrants to spy on citizens of Five Eyes countries.

Lastly, New Zealand has not lied to its citizens about its spying programmes. Everyone knows this country spies on foreigners and, as Mr Snowden himself says, New Zealand doesn’t spy on its public. There are things the government can’t talk about, but that’s different from lying.

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