NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has penned a firm rebuke to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, accusing the head of state of "not telling the truth about mass surveillance" and issuing this plainly worded warning to residents of the country: "If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched."
Snowden's comments were published in The Intercept on Monday alongside new reporting by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher which claims to show how New Zealand's spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), launched a major digital surveillance program—codenamed Project Speargun—at the very same time the Key government was denying the existence of such programs.
Citing evidence contained in NSA documents leaked by Snowden, Greenwald and Gallagher report that the activities of GCSB—including setting up sophisticated traps on the internet cables that join New Zealand with the global web—"are in direct conflict with the assurances given to the public" by Prime Minister Key.
According to the report:
Top secret documents provided by the whistleblower demonstrate that the GCSB, with ongoing NSA cooperation, implemented Phase I of the mass surveillance program code-named “Speargun” at some point in 2012 or early 2013. “Speargun” involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable. This cable carries the vast majority of internet traffic between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and mass collection from it would mark the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades.
Upon completion of the first stage, Speargun moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables. The NSA documents note that the first such metadata probe was scheduled for “mid-2013.” Surveillance probes of this sort are commonly used by NSA and their partners to tap into huge flows of information from communication cables in real time, enabling them to extract the dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, and the like. The technique is almost by definition a form of mass surveillance; metadata is relatively useless for intelligence purposes without a massive amount of similar data to analyze it against and trace connections through.
The controversy over domestic spying in New Zealand takes place just days ahead of national elections. On Sunday, seeming to understand that The Intercept story was on the verge of publication, Key admitted that his government "considered" implementing what he termed a "mass cyber protection system," but that the scheme was never carried out.
In his comments, which reads like an open letter to the people of New Zealand, Snowden claimed to have first-hand knowledge of how the nation's internet traffic was monitored and collected by the GCSB and shared with his employer, the NSA. Concerning government denials about the existence or nature of the program, Snowden stated his desire to be clear:
Any statement that mass surveillance is not performed in New Zealand, or that the internet communications are not comprehensively intercepted and monitored, or that this is not intentionally and actively abetted by the GCSB, is categorically false. If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched. At the NSA I routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in my work with a mass surveillance tool we share with GCSB, called “XKEYSCORE.” It allows total, granular access to the database of communications collected in the course of mass surveillance. It is not limited to or even used largely for the purposes of cybersecurity, as has been claimed, but is instead used primarily for reading individuals’ private email, text messages, and internet traffic. I know this because it was my full-time job in Hawaii, where I worked every day in an NSA facility with a top secret clearance.
The prime minister’s claim to the public, that “there is no and there never has been any mass surveillance” is false. The GCSB, whose operations he is responsible for, is directly involved in the untargeted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio, and phone networks.
On Monday, a panel on internet freedom and New Zealand digital surveillance was hosted by Kim Dotcom, a German internet entrepreneur who resides in New Zealand and recently founded the Internet Party. Joining Kim Dotcom on the stage of the event as live panelists were Glenn Greenwald, Internet Party leader Laila Harre, and Dotcom's lawyer Robert Amsterdam. Joining via live videostream were Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia under asylum protection, and founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange, who dialed in from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he, too, remains under separate protection.
Watch the livestream of the "Moment of Truth" event here: