Glenn Greenwald’s arrival in NZ has reignited controversy over who, exactly, the GCSB spies on, how it does so, and for whom it does so. Tonight he will outline what he has gleaned from the Snowden leaks, and I have no doubts that what is revealed will be of serious consequence. The impact will be twofold.
So far, most attention has focused on the domestic side of the equation, in the form of claims that the GCSB, in concert with its 5 Eyes partners, conducts mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens and residents. The way it does so is to tap into the broadband infrastructure in order to extract so-called “metadata,” that is, the key identifiers of cyber messages such as time, sender, internet addresses and geographic locations of those communicating, etc. This information is stored and later subject to data mining from technologies like X Keyscore, which searches for keywords and phrases that can justify opening the metadata in order to reveal the contents of the messages identified by the data-mining technologies.
In simple terms, it is like going to people’s postboxes and recording all of the identifying features of their mail without opening the mail itself unless key identifiers allow the government to do so.
The government maintains that a) it does not collect metadata on New Zealanders and NZ permanent residents; and b) that collecting metadata is not equivalent to mass surveillance in any event since the contents of the messages from which metadata is extracted are not accessed unless there are reasons of national security to do so, and this occurs only in a handful of instances.
The reality is that because of a gentleman’s agreement between the 5 Eyes partners, metadata of the citizens of one partner state is accessed and collected by one or more of the other partners and only sent to the originating state if data-mining indicates that there is reason to open the contents of specific metadata “packages” concerning citizens or residents of that state. In this way the originating state government can claim that it is not engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens or residents.
That may be parsing the meaning of “mass surveillance” beyond useful construction, but it does allow the government to deny that it conducts such mass surveillance on technical grounds–i.e., metadata is not the same as a private communication because it has no content.
The problem with such specious reasoning is that it violates two foundational tenets of liberal democracy: the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence. If it is considered an untoward invasion of privacy for the government or others to systematically rifle through and record the identifying features of correspondence in people’s mail boxes, then it is equally a violation of Â citizen’s rights to privacy for the government to electronically collect and store their cyber metadata.
Moreover, the mass collection and sharing of metadata by 5 Eyes intelligence agencies violates the presumption of innocence that citizens of democracies are supposedly entitled to. That is because the metadata is collected without cause. The government does not have a specific reason, suspicion or motive for collecting metadata, it just does so because it can under the aegis of “national security.” It then subjects this metadata to data-mining in order to find cause to conduct more intrusive searches of the contents. Â It is, in effect, trawling through everyone’s cyber communications in order identify and presumably counter the nefarious behaviour or plans of some individuals, groups or agencies.
This strikes at the heart of democracy. Yet the remedy is fairly simple. Under legal challenge the government can be forced to show cause for the collection of metadata of its citizens and residents. If it cannot, then the courts can deem such collection to be illegal in all but the most exceptional circumstances. With that judgement–and I very much doubt that any High Court would find it reasonable or permissible to engage in mass metadata collection without cause–intelligence agencies are put on notice and henceforth proceed with metadata collection and sharing at their peril.
In contrast to the attention directed at the issue of mass surveillance, there is a far more damaging side to Greenwald’s revelations. That is the issue of the GCSB and 5 Eyes espionage on other countries and international agencies such as the UN or non-governmental organisations as well as foreign corporations, financial institutions, regulatory bodies and the like. Such external espionage is part of traditional inter-state intelligence gathering, which includes economic, military and political-diplomatic information about targeted entities.
Judging from what has already been revealed by the Snowden leaks with regard to the external espionage activities of the other 5 Eyes partners, it is very likely that Greenwald will reveal that NZ, through the GCSB in concert with 5 Eyes, spies on friendly or allied states as well as hostile state and non-state actors such as North Korea and al-Qaeda. This may include trade or diplomatic partners. It could well include economic or commercial espionage.
The impact of such revelations will outweigh the repercussions of the domestic surveillance aspects of the Snowden leaks. With the nature and extent of NZ’s espionage made public, its reputation as an independent and autonomous “honest Â broker” in international affairs will be shattered. Its pursuit of a UN Security Council seat could well go up in smoke. But above all, the response of the states that have been and are targeted by the GCSB will be negative and perhaps injurious to NZ’s national interests. The response can come in a variety of ways, and can be very damaging. It can be economic, diplomatic or military in nature. It could involve targeting of Kiwis living in in the states being spied on, or it could involve bans or boycotts of NZ exports. The range of retaliatory measures is broad.
Unlike the other 5 Eyes partners, NZ has no strategic leverage on the states that it spies on. It is not big, powerful or endowed with strategic export commodities that are essential for other countries’ growth. Yet it is utterly trade dependent. Because of that, it is far more vulnerable to retaliation than its larger counterparts, especially if it turns out that NZ spies on its trade partners. Â Imagine what will happen if it is revealed that NZ and the other 5 Eyes partners spy on TPPA Â members in order to secure advantage and coordinate their negotiating strategies (keeping in mind that Australia, Canada and the US are all TPPA parties). What if if NZ spies on China, its biggest trade partner, at the behest of the US, with whom China has an increasingly tense strategic rivalry? What if it spies on Japan, Malaysia, Chile, Iran, India, Russia or the UAE? What if it spies on the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional organisations? What if it spies on Huawei or some other foreign corporations? Again, the possible range of retaliatory options is only surpassed by the probability that they will be applied once NZ’s espionage activities are made public.
In light of this it behooves the government to make contingency plans for the inevitable fallout/backlash that is coming our way. I say “our” rather than “their” because the response of the aggrieved parties will likely have, be it directly or as a trickle-down effect, a negative impact on most all Kiwis rather than just this government. Â But so far the government has indicated that it has no contingency plans in place and in fact has adopted a wait and see approach to what Greenwald will reveal.
If so, it will be too late to mitigate the negative external impact of his revelations. And if so, that is a sign of gross incompetence or negligence on the part of the PM and his cabinet because they have known for a long time what Snowden took with him regarding NZ (since the NSA shared the results of its forensic audit of the purloined NSA material once Snowden disappeared). It therefore had plenty of time to develop a plan of action whether or not Greenwald showed up to be part of Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” event.
All of which means that, if Greenwald delivers on his promises, New Zealand is in for a very rough ride over the next few months. That, much more so than Dotcom’s quest for revenge against John Key, is why tonight’s event could well be a signal moment in NZ history.