More than reassuring words needed to get to the truth on spying

My opinion piece (below) was published in the 5 December 2013 issue of the New Zealand Herald.

Read this article on the NZ Herald website

In his Dialogue page piece this week, Paul Buchanan calls on our Government “to prepare contingency plans for the diplomatic fallout that inevitably lies ahead” when information from Edward Snowden’s documents shows that our GCSB is helping its Five Eyes partner agencies to spy on foreign Governments.

Buchanan rightly points to the contradiction between New Zealand’s reputation as an independent actor in world affairs and its role in helping the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia spy on the rest of the world.

In politics, as in life, the best way to deal with a contradiction is to resolve it, not try your best to hide it, as Buchanan seems to advocate.

Buchanan asks: “What purpose is served by these revelations other than to hurt the foreign relations of the ‘outed’ countries?” I can think of other purposes.

The revelations have helped many Governments appreciate the extent of Five Eyes interception of their communications and take counter-measures. This serves the national interest of these countries, many of which are friendly to New Zealand. How does it help New Zealand when other nations see their national interests being subordinated to the national interests of just five countries: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand?

New Zealand, as a small country trading with many nations, has an interest in a more equitable world, where the already rich and powerful countries don’t have too much advantage over developing nations. It doesn’t help when the United States superpower, through its National Security Agency, intercepts the diplomatic and business communications of other nations to give itself an advantage at world meetings and trade talks.

The Snowden revelations also show our privacy being threatened by the bulk collection of phone call and email data by the Five Eyes nations. This week we, learned from the Snowden papers that the Defence Signals Directorate (now called the Australian Signals Directorate) was willing to share with its Five Eyes partners the “metadata” it gathers on millions of Australian phone calls and emails. The mass collection of such data is a privacy problem which legislators in several countries are now looking at.

I don’t give the same credence as Buchanan to claims by “US intelligence officials” that Snowden could be a Russian spy. This only serves to divert attention from the genuine privacy issues raised by Snowden. His revelations have been headlined around the world because people are concerned that we are moving towards a kind of “surveillance society” and putting pressure on politicians to come up with counter-measures.

Buchanan is right to predict that future revelations about New Zealand’s role in Five Eyes spying could “jeopardise its international standing at a time when it is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council”. However he doesn’t provide any suggestions as to what New Zealand’s “contingency plan” might be.

If New Zealand is shown to be helping the Five Eyes spy on trading partners in the Asia/Pacific, then nice, reassuring words won’t save us.

Our best response to countries we might be spying on is to say that we are setting up a public inquiry into whether it is still appropriate to be in Five Eyes.

• Keith Locke is a former Green Party intelligence spokesman