GCSB assurance it hasn’t ‘conducted surveillance’ of me isn’t the end of the story


GCSB Director Ian Fletcher has let me know, in a letter dated 31 October, that I was “not amongst the 88 [illegally spied on by the GCSB] and that the GCSB has not conducted surveillance of you.”

Of course

I was happy to get such a result

, even if it did take almost seven months, and it took the intervention of the Privacy Commissioner stop the spy agency from stone-walling me. In his initial response (on 21 May) Mr Fletcher told me that “GCSB can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of the information requested.”

At least Mr Fletcher has now answered my question. But I am only partly assured by it. What exactly does a we “have not conducted surveillance of you” response mean in this new era of mass surveillance, as exposed by Edward Snowden?

The type of surveillance reflected in

my Security Intelligence Service file

(obtained in late 2008) is quite different from the mass communications surveillance now conducted by the GCSB and its Five Eyes partners, particularly the US National Security Agency and the British GCHQ.

A typical entry on my SIS file is a typed paper report from an agent who had infiltrated an antiwar meeting. This report would be placed, not only in my file, but also in the files of others present at the meeting, if the SIS believed they were sufficiently committed peace activists to qualify for a “Personal File”. Opponents of wars New Zealand and the United States were engaged in were deemed at that time to be enemies of the state.

The computer age has meant the GCSB and the NSA don’t have to bother with constructing so many files like that. The NSA is collecting information about every US phone call, and the GCSB’s satellite dishes at Waihopai are collecting similar information from international calls passing through the satellites they target.

If the GCSB or NSA wants to check on anybody they no longer need to assemble a file or to have put that person under direct surveillance. They just need to put the person’s name into a computer search (with appropriate filters) and up will pop the phone calls of interest, and perhaps a list of political meetings and protests that person has attended.

My request to the GCSB was prompted my concern that the GCSB might have been helping the SIS with the information being placed on my SIS file (on 10 and 25 September 2003) on preparations for my trip, as an MP, to Sri Lanka. This was during the period, identified in the Kitteridge report, when the GCSB was illegally spying on New Zealanders in support of the SIS. Rather than spying on me, the GCSB (or Five Eyes partners) may have been intercepting communications between Tamils in New Zealand and Tamils in Sri Lanka, who were at that time helping organise the itinerary for my trip.

My point is that in this day and age a person doesn’t need to be a target of an electronic spy agency to have information about them recorded and passed on, sometimes to their detriment. That is why we should be worried about the passage of the GCSB Bill and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill which allow for more comprehensive spying on New Zealanders’ communications.