Separate spy agency not needed

Today (31 August) the New Zealand Herald published my opinion piece critical of the GCSB, under the heading “Separate Spy Agency Not Needed” with a subhead: “Instead of spending $60m a year on a GCSB the cyber-security side could easily be transferred to the police.” The OpEd also questions the benefit of an agency whose dominant purpose is to spy for the NSA-led Five Eyes. The link is:

Instead of spending $60m a year on a GCSB the cyber-security side could easily be transferred to the police.

The Waihopai spy station sweeps up the communications of New Zealanders and foreigners. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It seems that both supporters and opponents of the GCSB bill are questioning the need for New Zealand to have a stand-alone electronic spy agency.

The Herald has reported that Dr Jim Veitch, a supporter of the bill, proposes a single intelligence agency, incorporating the GCSB, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), the National Assessments Bureau and the Intelligence Co-ordination Group.

The government may be receptive to such a proposal, given it has been busy merging agencies to form such ministries as Business, Innovation and Employment.

Streamlining the provision of government services, avoiding duplication and improving co-ordination are laudable goals.

Unlike Dr Veitch, I oppose the GCSB bill, but I agree with him that we don’t need an independent electronic spy agency.

Let us look at the three functions of the GCSB, as outlined in the bill, and see where else they could be accommodated. The three functions are cyber-security, foreign intelligence collection and assisting the collection of intelligence by the SIS, the police and the Defence Force.

In selling the bill, John Key has emphasised the need for cyber-security and most New Zealanders agree with him that we need to protect our computers. But do we need a GCSB to do this? The police have their own cyber-security capacity, and are busy chasing and prosecuting cyber-criminals.

To avoid duplication it would be better for the GCSB’s cyber-security resource to be transferred to the police.

A similar argument applies to the assistance the GCSB provides to agencies like the police, which the bill would make legal. If it were simply a matter of the GCSB having the most sophisticated communications interception equipment then it would make sense for this equipment (and the people who operated it) to be handed over to the police.

This would also alleviate a fear that the GCSB is to be used to spy on New Zealanders. It wouldn’t, however, eliminate such concerns. The very nature of the GCSB’s foreign intelligence gathering is that it sweeps up the communications of both New Zealanders and foreigners. The international phone communications the GCSB intercepts through its Waihopai spy station don’t come with passports attached, so Kiwis are also caught in the net.

In addition, all the phone data drawn down into the satellite dishes at Waihopai is shared with the US National Security Agency (NSA), whose mandate doesn’t exclude spying on the communications of New Zealanders.

A deeper question, which has been insufficiently debated, is what benefit New Zealand gets from being part of the NSA-led Five Eyes electronic intelligence network.

The only successes claimed by the GCSB in its last 10 annual reports are that it has detected cyber-threats. No terrorists have ever been discovered, and as far as we can tell no one has ever been prosecuted as a result of information provided by the GCSB. In fact, in May the GCSB director, Ian Fletcher, proudly announced that “no arrest, prosecution or other legal processes have occurred as a result of the information supplied to NZSIS by the GCSB”, in support of SIS operations over the previous 10 years. By contrast, the police use their interception powers to catch dozens of criminals every year.

This suggests the GCSB adds little value to other government agencies in the detection of criminality. So why are we spending around $60 million a year on this agency?

It is probable – although we don’t know the details – the New Zealand government does get some useful tidbits of information from the Waihopai station and the Five Eyes intelligence network.

But in my opinion any such gain is far outweighed by the downside of other nations getting upset with us for being part of a five-nation network, led by America, which is spying on them.

It is clear from the Snowden revelations the targets of Five Eyes include the diplomatic communications of virtually every other nation – including our main trading partners in Asia and Europe.

It is hard to see what New Zealand gains from this. In fact, on some foreign policy and disarmament issues New Zealand is more aligned with European nations than the United States. Why are we part of a Five Eyes intelligence network that is geared to giving America an “information advantage” in its negotiations with Europe on trade and other matters?

If we did a proper balance sheet of the gains and losses from our Five Eyes membership, we might conclude that we should leave. If so, we might also decide that we don’t need a stand-alone electronic spy agency like the GCSB. The domestic functions the GCSB now has (like cyber-security) could be handled by better resourcing of other state agencies, particularly the police.