Reports citing classified documents leaked by U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden state that New Zealand is carrying out mass surveillance over several Pacific island states, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Tonga and French Polynesia. The New Zealand Herald notes that the data gathered was shared with the other members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, a grouping encompassing the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. New Zealand’s Green Party has lodged a complaint with the country’s Inspector General of Intelligence and Security claiming that the Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand’s intelligence agency) broke the law by spying on, among other target, New Zealand citizens’ activities in the aforementioned states.
Diplomatically, the revelations will likely cause a problematic backlash for Prime Minister John Key’s government. The nations included in the Snowden documents as targets of New Zealand’s mass surveillance are all friendly with New Zealand. The Intercept, which hosted the leaked documents, notes that the surveillance “is being carried out by GCSB from an intelligence base in New Zealand’s Waihopai Valley.” The report adds:
Intercepted data collected at the Waihopai site is being shared through an NSA surveillance system called XKEYSCORE, which is used to analyze vast amounts of emails, internet browsing sessions and online chats that are intercepted from some 150 different locations worldwide.
Nicky Hager, the investigative report at the New Zealand Herald who broke the story, describes the exact nature of the GCSB’s intelligence gathering activities:
The spy agency intercepts the flows of communications between these countries and then breaks them down into individual emails, phone calls, social media messages and other types of communications. All this intelligence is immediately made available to the NSA, which is based in Maryland, near Washington, DC.
Key’s reaction to the reports has been muted so far. He noted that the GCSB’s activities involved the collection of “foreign intelligence that is in the best interests of New Zealand and protecting New Zealanders.” A former director of the GCSB, when asked on a radio show if the government of New Zealand had willingly passed data regarding the activities of New Zealand citizens to the NSA, said: “Well I don’t think there’s any need to worry about that.” Andrew Little, leader of New Zealand’s opposition Labour Party, noted that he was “stunned at the breadth of the information that’s been collected,” even if he understood the need for a national security and intelligence apparatus.
The New Zealand leaks are a stark reminder that the fallout of the Snowden leaks continues to complicate diplomacy for countries in the “Five Eyes” grouping. As far as the diplomatic fallout for New Zealand goes, reactions have been muted so far. Fijian authorities, for example, are refraining from commenting on the matter. Tonga’s prime minister has said that New Zealand’s actions “breached the trust that has been established between the two countries.”
The Intercept notes that it will reveal additional details regarding the scope of New Zealand’s surveillance in the coming days.