All sides in the current spying debate are choosing their words very carefully as the search for lies intensifies. But what do those words mean?

Words matter, never so much in New Zealand politics as they do right now. Remember Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass?

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

At the moment, New Zealanders are trying to process a phenomenal amount of information in a very short period of time as many involved in debating that information try to master the words they use and make them mean whatever they want them to mean.

The problem is, they may not mean what other people think they mean.

Today, journalist Glenn Greenwald and whistle blower Edward Snowden have laid out their words at Greenwald's website, The Intercept. Snowden wrote:

Let me 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.”

...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 the other hand, John Key has denied lying, with this statement. Key says:

“Claims have been made tonight that are simply wrong and that is because they are based on incomplete information,” Mr Key says.“There is not, and never has been, a cable access surveillance programme operating in New Zealand.“There is not, and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB.“Regarding XKEYSCORE, we don’t discuss the specific programmes the GCSB may, or may not use, but the GCSB does not collect mass metadata on New Zealanders, therefore it is clearly not contributing such data to anything or anyone,” Mr Key says.

But much of the devil in this debate is in the precise meaning of the words involved.

Such as "mass". What is mass? How many New Zealanders need to be spied on for it to be mass, or "wholesale" as the Prime Minister likes to say? What Snowden considers "mass", Key may not.

And what is "surveillance"? Not wire tapping every phone or trawling through every email. We're talking about metadata – names, times, addresses. The stuff Snowden says as an analyst he found more compelling and useful because "it does not lie".

And there's even "fact". How much is memory and likelihood and best guesses and how much proven evidence? How much is the complete truth and how much just the truth that's been recorded and put on paper?

So could the cable and its New Zealand traffic still be under surveillance at the other end of the pipe, ie not "in New Zealand"? The Southern Cross Cable CEO says no, who is a strong source, but can Key be as unequivocal about the integrity of the cable along its entire length?

Is someone other than the GCSB conducting mass surveillance on New Zealanders? Snowden says the GCSB has "abbetted" and is "involved", but not that it undertook it, as Key says. The idea is that there's always been a gentleman's agreement between the countries that they spy on each other, rather than spy on their own. So perhaps each are using the words that best suit their argument and their own version of the truth.
When Snowden says, as he did at the Town Hall, he could log onto his computer each morning, click on New Zealand and pull up just about any email he wanted by typing in an email address, does that actually contradict Key's denials? Further, Key's denials have focused on turning down a system called Cortex; the Greenwald slides referred to an operation called Speargun. Are they conveniently talking past each other to maintain their own versions of the truth?And what about the assurances Key made at the time of the GCSB bill and how the agency's powers were being reined in? What were his precise words and are they at odds with the powers the GCSB and the jobs it is doing, as Greenwald and Snowden claim.
It seems words are being carefully chosen to obfuscate and avoid an outright, definitive lie. Yet somewhere in those questions lies the truth we need to understand. It's only when we understand the true meaning of the words being used that we'll understand who's telling the truth and who's lying, if indeed anyone is.But remember, there is truth and there is truth; beneath the precise meanings are what we have all been led to believe. So have we been tricked by one aprty or another and led up a particular garden path. We need to keep that in mind as we rapidly search for these answers.

We need precision at this point and some agreed meaning, or else we may as well all be Humpty Dumpty sitting on that wall, and our ability to cast an informed vote at the election on Saturday may be just as vulnerable.

Comments (51)

by stuart munro on September 16, 2014
stuart munro

Well a masterful delivery of pre-electoral confusion Tim.

Better draw up an infographic like the map of the VRWC - that is if your objective is to actually inform and not to conceal.

We have a bunch of people out there taking considerable pains and risks speaking their truths to power, and you are just muddying the water.

by Robert Eddes on September 16, 2014
Robert Eddes

I second what Munro says.  You are treating it a little too flippantly for my liking. 

by Colin Fleming on September 16, 2014
Colin Fleming

It was a real shame that Snowden and Greenwald, whose credentials are basically impeccable, linked their disclosures to Dotcom. They must have known it was a risk, they're smart enough to anticipate the effect it might have had. He couldn't resist plugging his Mega service, and whatever you think about his case and how he's been treated, he's just not perceived as serious. And while I agree with Buchanan that the TPP is one of the most important issues for New Zealanders right now since it looks like we'll basically be ceding much of our sovereignty, adding that to the mix just confused things more and seriously diluted their most important message.

It would be totally naive at this point to assume that the sort of surveillance that Snowden and Greenwald have identified isn't happening in New Zealand. Their evidence for it happening here was pretty weak but our intelligence allies are clearly doing just that all over the world, everywhere they can. Any assumption that Key wouldn't allow that because he's a decent bloke are ludicrous at this stage. Whether it's legal or not is another issue, but that will be impossible to determine until we know what's actually happening.

What do our legal eagles think about Greenwald's argument about conveniently declassifying these documents yesterday - is he correct in his argument that that means that they should never have been classified in the first place?

With apologies to all our reporters present, I think the New Zealand media has done a pretty shameful job of seriously debating the issues around surveillance, and of holding Key to account. The Newstalk ZB interview was laughable, Key more or less joked around threw a few things out that were never seriously challenged. It's not surveillance, it's mass cyber protection - what does that even mean, and why do you have to tap a cable to do it? I'd love someone to ask Key in an interview why we should believe him when James Clapper flat out lied to Congress (to Congress! Under oath!) and then just backed down basically saying he had to lie to protect the programs, and thus national security. I'd like to see him pressed hard on whether he asserts that Snowden is lying when he says he could access any New Zealander's communication just by unchecking a box. It's really frustrating to see him being repeatedly allowed to just roll out the same platitudes.

by Ken Crawford on September 16, 2014
Ken Crawford

I have to agree with Stuart and Robert, Tim. We already know there are semantic games being played, so how about assisting us in finding answers to the questions Greenwald so clearly laid out for us?.  

by Katharine Moody on September 16, 2014
Katharine Moody

The biggest thing I struggle to understand is what motivates so many of our journalists in this country to deliberately obfuscate and excuse? Perhaps they need to experience first-hand this government using its tools against them for its own political gain;



by onsos on September 16, 2014

Mr Key has said that he will not discuss XKEYSCORE, but that is where a huge part of the detail of the allegation lies. By refusing to discuss XKEYSCORE, it appears that Key is attempting to avoid incriminating himself. This is unacceptable, and needs to be called as such.

by Alan Ivory on September 16, 2014
Alan Ivory

@Stewart Munro and @Ken Crawford. I agree.

In addition, what reasonable evidential basis is there for suggesting Snowden, Greenwald etc are deliberately "talking past" Key et al in order to avoid the truth?  A remark like that smacks of the lazy attitude "what the hell, they're all doing it so why should I care about at all?"

by william blake on September 16, 2014
william blake

The moment of truth last night was Snowdon's statement that he read data, and metadata belonging to New Zealand citizens. All this really illustrate is that our ally's security service the NSA spy on us. I assume this intelligence becomes a commodity and is traded back to the GCSB for other favours, such as search and seisure of people of interest and small legislative changes under urgency to facillitate American interests.

by Katharine Moody on September 16, 2014
Katharine Moody

Forget Humpty Dumpty - he's an egg.

Just ask these questions for starters:

  • Why did you inform the public that the GCSB Amendment Bill would not lead to an expansion of powers when at the same time you were planning the Speargun mass surveillance initiative?
  • Why was phase one of the Speargun project completed if it was, as Prime Minister Key has claimed, something that never made it past the “business case”?
  • Why were New Zealanders not informed about the Cortex project until the government’s hand was forced by disclosures based on documents from Snowden?
  • How much data is collected on a daily basis by GCSB under the Cortex project, and how does the agency ensure this data does not “incidentally” include the content or metadata of citizens’ communications?
  • The Cortex documents refer to the use of technology that “has been in use for some time.” What technology is this?
  • Is any information collected by GCSB under Cortex — or any other program that accesses internet data — shared with the NSA and/or other Five Eyes agencies through systems such as XKEYSCORE?
  • Does GCSB have access to XKEYSCORE and, if so, for how long has this been the case?
  • Does GCSB use its access to internet data streams — under initiatives like Cortex or similar — to launch active/offensive cyber operations that involve hacking computer systems to collect information?
  • When will you declassify documents detailing the Speargun project and showing that it was not completed?

Kindly brought to you by international journailsts covering this story.



by Wayne Mapp on September 16, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Seriously, would anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of how securirty agencies operate expect the PM or any other official to reveal the actual technologies used by intelligence agencies.

Certainly this was never expected of Helen Clark. And she was very tight on these issues.

What you would expect is that they would lay out the overall extent of surviellance. So for instance Sir Bruce Fergusson has said GCSB does not do mass surveillance. But he certainly won't reveal actual technologies being used. And he will still be networked enough to have a good sense of how GCSB currently works.

And I am hardly surprised that Snowden has seen emails originating from NZ. These would be emails sent to overseas parties, and I suspect it will be the oveseas party that is of interest to NSA.

For instance the recruiters of ISIS fighters out of NZ are not likely to be in NZ. And I would certaily hope that the "5 Eyes" agencies have spent a fair bit of time determining who is being recruited, how they are being recruited and who they are contacting.

Fighting a war against ISIS without proper intelligence would be rather crazy. And I presume the majority of the left want to see ISIS defeated (though perhaps not all those who are obsessed with intellignce agencies).  

by Colin Fleming on September 16, 2014
Colin Fleming

Wayne: what is your view on our (and our allies') surveillance technology being used for things not related to counterterrorrism? For example the classification by the MoD of Jon Stephenson and other investigative journalists as equivalent to members of foreign intelligence agencies or extremist organisations simply because they're potentially politically embarrassing to the government? Or, for example, spying on our allies to try to gain economic advantage over them in trade negotiations? After all, counterterrorism only accounts for about a third of the NSA's budget, and GCHQ has "protecting the economic interest of the UK" explicitly in its mandate. Do you think the majority of New Zealanders would agree with this being done here?

The problem with blanket surveillance is that it's too tempting to misuse. I don't think anyone would argue that we need tools against the likes of ISIS. However that doesn't mean that intelligence agencies have carte blanche to implement whatever programs they like. In a democracy there should be an informed public debate about issues like this since it affects the very basis of a democratic society, and yet currently we're being denied this debate.

Note that there is precedent for intelligence agencies behaving in a more open way. In Sweden, for example, when they implemented blanket surveillance measures it was introduced in the open, debated by the government, and ultimately went on to be implemented. At least there, people knew what was being done in their name and they could then vote accordingly.

by Katharine Moody on September 16, 2014
Katharine Moody

And here is another NZ journalist who was subject to the dirty corporate politics;




by Kat on September 16, 2014

@Wayne Mapp

Sir Bruce Ferguson acknowledged on RNZ this morning that GCSB staff are trained in the use of X-keyscore technology.

To look at metadata you have to have collected it in the first place.

Its getting to the point that any one associated now or then with National cannot be trusted to make beleiveable comments on these serious matters.

by Wayne Mapp on September 16, 2014
Wayne Mapp


Sir Bruce was pretty careful, saying not much more than people have to be trained to use the appropriate technologies. I would have thought it pretty much self evident that the "5 eyes" partners would use complimentary systems. Otherwise how would they interoperate.

Way back when I was a signals officer in the NZ Army (TF), there were standard codes used by partner nations. Otherwise there would be no interoperability. Of course that was nearly 25 years ago. Technology has radicaly changed, but the principles have not. And of course I also have more recent knowledge of Defence.

by william blake on September 16, 2014
william blake

"Seriously, would anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of how securirty agencies operate expect the PM or any other official to reveal the actual technologies used by intelligence agencies."

John Key seemed willing to declassify documents to prove his case, seriously.

by stuart munro on September 16, 2014
stuart munro

ISIS really isn't the issue here Wayne, though I guess it's a pretty good squirrel.

It's more to do with the GCSB and Key's 'integrity'. It seems that he has systematically lied to New Zealanders again - not really acceptable behaviour for anyone wielding the extraordinary powers of state intelligence agencies.

You're a lawyer - you know about the need for demonstrably clean hands - Key hasn't got 'em. End of story.

by Katharine Moody on September 16, 2014
Katharine Moody

Certainly this was never expected of Helen Clark. And she was very tight on these issues.

“Our intelligence relationship was fully restored in August 29, 2009,” the SECRET/NOFORN cable, meaning for American eyes only – No Foreign Nationals, says.

The cables also reveal an increase in New Zealand co-operation with US intelligence agencies and military, beginning under Helen Clark’s Labour government. A cable from March 2, 2007, said Clark, as minister in charge of the intelligence agencies: “is read into all major operations involving US intelligence… [and] grasps that NZ must `give to get’.”

Giving to get is, I assume, what Key's more recent disclosures are about - our various projects to upscale in terms of giving. Charming.

by Anne on September 16, 2014

@ Wayne

Sir Bruce Ferguson has deeply disappointed me. I knew him ever so slightly when he was still with the RNZAF, and I saw him as a pretty straight up kind of person. However is disgraceful attempt to smear Edward Snowden this morrning on RNZ by labelling him a traitor and a liar left me feeling very ill disposed towards him. 

Snowden is a whistleblower... you know, one of those people who have the courage to stand up and reveal questionable and dishonourable behaviour on the part of large conglomerates including the State. For his pains he was forced into exile.  He will go down in history as one of the great personages of out time. John Key on the other hand - if he is remembered at all - will likely be relegated to a one liner at the end of the 'encyclopedia' of the future.  



by Petone on September 16, 2014

Tim, its a nice piece and a lot of thought has obviously gone into it.. but I'm with Stuart, Robert, Ken and Alan, and I suspect a large proportion of the 99% who read but did not comment on the article.

Sure both sides are choosing their words.  Greenwald at al picked on Xkeyscore and Speargun as the supposed weapons of mass surveillance. That's not "talking past" Key, that's their whole fucking point.  Key picked on Cortex which is nothing to do with Greenwald's accusation, it's just a distraction.  The actions of the two parties are in no way equivalent.

And when Key says he does not discuss the specific programmes that GCSB may or may not use, was that in the same minute that he discussed Cortex, or merely in the same hour?



You say " I am hardly surprised that Snowden has seen emails originating from NZ. These would be emails sent to overseas parties, and I suspect it will be the oveseas party that is of interest to NSA."

Most of NZ's email traffic crosses the US, so it is almost certainly collected by NSA. So they will have email from most of the NZ population.. I'd call that mass surveilance.



by Wayne Mapp on September 16, 2014
Wayne Mapp


Just as a matter of interest, how much of the worlds internet traffic goes through the US (whether that is domestic or international traffic). If most of ours goes through the US, wouldn't that be also true of many other nations?

So if I accepted your proposition, and if Snowden is to be beleived, the NSA will be looking at much if not most of the world's internet traffic. They won't need any approval from the other nations, since they are capturing the information in the US itself. To take the point further, the NSA would be doing automated searches of every email from all these nations to see if key words and phrases come up, and then would home in on them.

In short the leaders of all sorts of countries could say we don't do mass surveliance, and that would be true. However, the US would be doing the surveillance of pretty much the whole world (unless the servers in say China and Russia are so heavily encrypted and sectioned off from the NSA that they are unbreakable) because the core servers and the cloud for most countries are US based, or are controlled by US companies (Google, Yahoo etc).

In that case all this discusion about the GCSB, or the cyber agencies of most countries is all a bit irrelevant. We simply are in no position to control what the NSA does, and it would not matter whether we were a "5 eyes" country or not.

by mudfish on September 16, 2014

But Petone, your example further illustrates Tim's point.

Greenwald at al picked on Xkeyscore and Speargun as the supposed weapons of mass surveillance.  Key picked on Cortex which is nothing to do with Greenwald's accusation, it's just a distraction.

If Tim is right,

The consistent line from one side is that the GCSB does not do mass surveillance on New Zealanders. And the consistent line from the other side is that others do. And so, just maybe, they are all telling the truth at once, talking past each other.

by Colin Fleming on September 16, 2014
Colin Fleming

Wayne, what you describe is basically what is already happening in the UK. Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism at the Home Office in the UK, claimed that GCHQ was legally justified in monitoring and collecting all UK communications without a warrant if they were hosted outside the UK. This is because they consider that to be external communications even when both parties to the communication are within the UK since the communication passes through a server outside the UK. Since a vast majority of the world's communications is now hosted in the US (anything on Google, Hotmail, Yahoo mail, Skype, Facebook...) this means that probably well over 90% (perhaps as much as 99%? not sure) of UK-UK communications is considered fair game.

Key has been extremely evasive about what the GCSB actually asks the NSA for, he's only repeatedly asserted that they will not ask for information that would be illegal for they themselves to collect. If they apply the same bizarre logic, which seems likely given that the UK is one of our primary intelligence partners and has a similar legal system, then they could justify getting a similar proportion of NZ-NZ communication from the Americans with no warrant or oversight. This doesn't seem very far fetched.

I've made the argument before on Pundit that national laws on surveillance, as with taxes, are rapidly becoming obsolete. We really need an international legal framework for this. What are important for systems like this are national laws like the TICS bill which allow the infrastructure for the actual collection of the data.

by Wayne Mapp on September 16, 2014
Wayne Mapp


I was actually going further. It would not matter whether NZ wanted this or not. The US would simply do it because they could (if you buy into the proposition that the US essentially surveils the entire world's emails).

John Key has said we don't ask NSA to do this. In fact even if he asked them not to do so, the NSA would do so anyway because all the emails are in the jurisdiction of the US.

But it all depends on believing that the NSA surveils the entire world's emails.

by Colin Fleming on September 16, 2014
Colin Fleming

Right, it doesn't matter whether we want it or not. And the US absolutely will collect all this mail, since for them it's foreign correspondence.

Frankly, scenarios where the US isn't surveilling the entire world's emails are starting to look pretty far fetched. Their new data centre in Utah is estimated to be big enough to hold all the world's communications for a long time. And the UK, by giving their legal justifications for these programs, have essentially tacitly admitted that they're doing it. Given that these are our main intelligence partners, I'd argue it's pretty naive to assume that we wouldn't do it if we had the capability and we could come up with some legal loophole like the above to permit it. Why wouldn't we?

by Nick Gibbs on September 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs


I'd argue it's pretty naive to assume that we wouldn't do it if we had the capability and we could come up with some legal loophole like the above to permit it. Why wouldn't we?

I'd argue why would we? Mass surveilance is against the law here, so there's nothing but trouble for the govt caught doing it. And if it did need doing then the US would be doing for us and posting along anything interesting. We also couldn't stop them from doing it so the question is pretty academic.

by Petone on September 16, 2014


I thought Luke Harding's new book The Snowden Files said this somewhere. Had a quick look and could not find it, though I did find it said 25% of internet traffic transits the UK and 81% of international phone calls transit the US (much via the internet). I was lazy when I said most email, I meant most internet traffic.  ie email, web browsing, skype, voip, bank transactions etc etc.

It is true that we're in no position to control what the NSA does, individually.  That is why whistle blowers like Snowden deserve our support.



I disagree.  Key holding up Cortex cabinet papers and saying "see, we don't do mass surveillance" is evading the question. It's like being pulled over by the police who want to know if your heap of a car is actually safe to drive, and you knowing the brakes are shot but saying only that the left rear tire is pretty low on tread but just makes 1.5mm and you're going to replace it next week.  I'm pleased that the Herald is now asking what justifies Key in releasing details of Cortex.. which is much more about legitimate national security and much less about invading privacy than is the surveillance issue.

From what Snowden is saying, GCSB is an end user of Xkeyscore, so I think it is an easy argument to make that they do conduct mass surveillance. Having said that, there are still many shades of grey due to current technical limitations.  Not all data is collected (yet), not all encryption is broken (yet), and not all of what is collected is kept very long (yet).  But the NSA and GCHQ have been hard at work on all these limitations, and once they do compile everything who's to say what use could be made of it?

By the way.. nice job on Jacqueline Rowarth's muddying the waterways article.


by Colin Fleming on September 16, 2014
Colin Fleming


I'd argue why would we?

To meet the terms of our agreements with the US? The leaked documents discussing GCHQ made it obvious that the NSA leaned on them pretty hard to pull their weight in the relationship - I imagine it would be the same with us, since we're probably mostly a user of their services.

Mass surveilance is against the law here...

I'm not sure that's so black and white although I must admit I don't know the fine details, I'd be delighted to be corrected. However in the US they've made it clear that they don't consider collection and algorithmic analysis of data to be surveillance - it's only surveillance once an analyst looks at it. What about metadata, is collecting that ok? As far as I'm aware, there haven't been a lot of definitive answers about that and similar questions, which leaves a lot of wriggle room for them to claim they're within the law while carrying out operations that I think that most people would consider mass surveillance.

But like you say, it's all mostly academic - even if the Internet Party unexpectedly got 60% of the votes on Saturday and took us out of the Five Eyes, the US will still be collecting our data whether we like it or not. It would be nice to not be a part of that, though.

by Ted Blaikie on September 17, 2014
Ted Blaikie

I would like someone to ask John Key what the relationship is between CORTEX (the program about which he has released documents) and XKEYSCORE and SPEARGUN (the program's that Snowdon and Greenwald are talking about). Given John Key's track record, I guess this will only be productive if someone like Espiner asks the question(s).

by Steve F on September 17, 2014
Steve F

"......For his pains he was forced into exile. He will go down in history as one of the great personages of out time....”

What a load of drivel. Snowden in his former position would have taken an oath under the equivalent of the Official Secrets Act. He has betrayed oath and as a result has committed an act of treason. There is simply no other way to characterize it. A true patriotic whistleblower wedded to their cause would stand and face the music. They would be willing to accept the punishment dished out and have the confidence that the people would accept their actions and a pardon would ensue.
Instead he made a run for it. A looser, a whimp who ends up shouting from the other side of the fence that he'll end up being tossed over when the Russians have no further use for him. Loneliness, isolation, alcohol and depression will probably finish him and unlike Kim Philby he needn't look forward to a hero's funeral and state burial in Moscow.
As for his revelations about reading New Zealander’s emails over morning coffee...what triggered the data analysis? Or is he just being a nosy bastard and breaking the rules.
Like the majority of New Zealanders I'm over the whole sorry saga. Without an effective intelligence service the country is naked to opportunists and bad eggs to take advantage of our unique culture of relative freedom and hijack our innovation and intellectual property, every vestige of what this country needs to survive in the modern age. If it requires collection of meta data then so be it. If you have a problem with that then buy a typewriter, a pile of second hand mobiles off Trade Me and a a handful of cash paid SIM cards from you local dairy.

by Colin Fleming on September 17, 2014
Colin Fleming

So I just listened to Sir Bruce Ferguson's interview with Radio New Zealand from yesterday morning. He made it very clear that under New Zealand law, surveillance is when an analyst actually looks at the data. He said: "Mass surveillance means that someone is looking at 4 million people. If you're just swooping up information, which didn't happen anyway..." then he stopped himself and went back to answer the original question again. He also clarified that a warrant would allow an analyst to go back and look at any stored historical data related to that warrant.

So if the definition of "mass surveillance" is that a GCSB employee has to look at everyone's email personally then it's pretty easy to say it's not happening, but I'm not sure that most kiwis would feel comfortable with all their communication being stored just in case. He did say that didn't happen in his time there, but refused to comment on whether it might have happened afterwards.

by Ted Blaikie on September 17, 2014
Ted Blaikie

I think that the Media need to get yes/no answers from John Key to the following questions (I know that will be difficult).

Hypothetically,  if the NSA and/or GCSB were collecting metadata on most New Zealanders but the GCSB only looked at the data when they had a warrant, would that constitute mass servielance?

If other members of the Five Eyes could look at the metadata without a warrant, would that constitute mass surveillance of New Zealanders?

If the other Five Eyes members could look at the metadata and tell the GCSB what there conclusions were, would that constitute mass surveillance of New Zealanders?

If John Key's answer to these three questions is no, then he needs to be asked what would constitute mass surveillance?

I think this goes to the heart of the matter.  What does John Key consider to be mass surveillance?


by william blake on September 17, 2014
william blake

mass surveillance only occurring if an operative looks at the data reminds me of the comment Albert Einstein made ti Niels Bohr, " if a tree falls in a forest and hits a mime does anybody care?"

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2014
Tim Watkin

Thanks Mudfish, you got my point where others obviously missed it. Part of what I was saying is that words are being carefully chosen by both sides, in Key's case out of political expediency and diplomatic necessity, and in Greenwald and co's case because they don't have the whole picture.

Yes, Snowden and Greenwald have very good (perhaps not impeccable) credentials, and their revelations this week add to a picture of what's going on, but it's not definitive. Three slides with almost the whole page redacted are not complete proof of anything. Speargun is underway, for example, could mean the business case Key is talking about, could mean that Cabinet members seem inclined (which at first they seemed to be) and so on. Again, this is my point. It depends on what these words mean. "Underway"? Could mean several things.

Everyone on this thread taking pot shots at me or journalism in general seems very happy to find Key guilty on circumstantial evidence or because it would be naive to "assume" anything else. I'd like more facts please. Yes, there is a body of evidence built up. Yes, you'd put 1 and 1 together and assume XKeyscore is being used here. But none of it is conclusive proof that Key is lying. As for "mass surveillance", my point (again for those determined to miss it) is that we haven't even agreed what that means. Consider Wayne's example: How many of those emails Snowden says he was reading (and it was simply an anecdote he gave, with no supporting evidence) were collected because of who was at the other end of the email? Until we define our terms and ask these basic questions we're simply arguing from entrenched positions.

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2014
Tim Watkin

Katharine, I've heard some of those questions asked, amongst many others. You might want to watch Key's stand-ups or listen to him on Nine to Noon – they'll be the main opportunities for answers this week. But there's limited access to the PM this week, there are other issues to ask about and simply asking those questions does not mean you're going to get a straight answer.

Ken et al, if you can ask me why I don't ask these questions, can I ask you why don't you ask them? It's just as daft a question. For a start, I produced Greenwald's first interview in NZ that started all this (after months of chasing him), for crying out loud.

Ted, you seem to get the point too. It seems with Cortex and Speargun the sides of the argument are talking about different things. And those questions are exactly about defining the words being used. The problem is that Key won't give you a yes/no answer. So then what? Well, you keep probing in different ways and over time slowly build up a picture.

Colin, your last comment too is getting the point. Ferguson's definition of "mass surveillance" is patently ridiculous. So is that the out clause? And if we agree it's not a matter of looking at all 4.4m NZers' metadata, is it the capability to do that? Is it 2m? 100,000? The NSA looking for us? What?

by Colin Fleming on September 17, 2014
Colin Fleming

Tim, FWIW I was impressed with the RNZ interview of Ferguson, precisely because the interviewer pressed him fairly hard on what exactly he was talking about and didn't let him get away with generalities. I haven't seen this happen with Key on this issue at all, although I may have missed it. I understand it's hard to get straight answers about a lot of this but that was the first real attempt I've seen - the Newstalk ZB interview with him was really quite absurd.

One thing I would have liked to have seen was more questions around the area of automatic algorithmic analysis of the data - do they consider that surveillance? Anyone with a Google or Facebook account and a little imagination knows how powerful this stuff is these days - my Google Voice account will automatically transcribe voice messages and send them to me. My wife can speak to her Android phone and have it transcribe what she says, translate it to another language and speak it out loud. Facial recognition algorithms will probably be as good as humans or better within five years - they're already incredibly accurate. The idea that they need a human to look at data to understand it is absurd these days - within five or ten years they simply won't need to for the vast majority of what they need to do. Even now, automatic analysis of large amounts of data provides insights that humans simply can't.

I'm actually not as anti-surveillance as it might seem - I understand that there are many legitimate needs for targeted surveillance. I'm much more worried about rampant data collection and retention - data about people's private lives has a nasty habit of falling into the wrong hands or existing long past its use-by date. Any US election means the possibility that all the data they hold on me will come under the control of someone whose political ideology is massively different to my own. The problem is that if I consider indiscriminate collection of my data an invasion of my privacy it's rapidly becoming a totally binary question - either I have total privacy, or none at all.

We're moving towards a massive social experiment - what happens when a government actually knows everything about everyone? The problem is if we don't like the results of the experiment, it's going to be impossible to roll back - in fact, it probably already is.

by Jane Beezle on September 17, 2014
Jane Beezle

@Wayne, @Tim Watkin

So here we have an ex-Minister of Defence weighing into this argument and saying:

1.  The NSA may well be conducting mass surveillance of all NZ internet traffic through USA;

2.  If they are, we can't stop them;

3.  The discussion of what the GCSB is or is not doing is therefore "all a bit irrelevant".

This seems to frame up the basic concern that underlies this entire discussion - NZ "doesn't ask" the NSA exactly what they do, the NSA "doesn't tell", in a fashion markedly similar to the neither confirm nor deny policy that related to nuclear vessels.

It doesn't take a great leap of analysis to realise that this type of arrangement, couched as it is in the secrecy that surrounds intelligence matters, means that:

1.  The GCSB can keep its actions legal;

2.  The Prime Minister can deny all knowledge of mass surveillance;

3.  It also remains beyond the scrutiny and knowledge of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security; and yet

4.  Mass surveillance of a significant proportion of NZ internet activity can occur, and moreover then be shared with NZ under cover of the secrecy that surrounds those relationships.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, far from it.  But if this is the way NZ complies with its intelligence legislation I find it very concerning.  Wayne, your argument appears to essentially conclude that it is better to be in the tent than out of it.  I wonder how many people agree with you.

by william blake on September 17, 2014
william blake

"Section 8 of the new bill permits the GCSB to spy on Kiwis on behalf of the SIS, police or military. Section 14 expressly prevents the GCSB snooping on Kiwis. But this only applies to its foreign intelligence gathering - not surveillance for cyber security or on behalf of those other agencies."


The bill passed by one vote giving the GCSB unwarranted power to spy on New Zealand citizens, and now an ex agent is saying that they are, what is so difficult about this Tim?

by Nick Gibbs on September 17, 2014
Nick Gibbs


You have raised some very pertinent questions. But I don't think its just about govts alone. Google and other large corporates hold masses of data on each individual and what real measures are there in place to check and balance this. A lot of work needs to be done by society to come to grips with this. It won't change my vote on Sat though as I think its a long term issue which will require more to sort out than just protest vote against JK.

by Wayne Mapp on September 17, 2014
Wayne Mapp


I was simply speculating on the consequences of the fact that aparently all New Zealands emails, tweets, facebook posts, etc go through US based servers, as presumably is the case for much of the rest of the world.

However, I don't actually know whether they do or not.

But you can see once they are in US servers ( I looked on line at the scale of the commercial servers in the US and the NSA facility in Utah - they are incredibly large), we have no control whatsoever as to what then happens.

Along with most other countries (if it is the case that all our emails, posts etc go through US based servers) we are totally dependent on the application of US law and the general policy of the NSA since in a sense our communications are no longer in our jurisdiction, they are in the jurisdiction of the US.

I am sure I have read somewhere that the "5 eyes" partners don't do mass surveillance on each other, so in that case being a "5 eyes" partner gives us a level of protection from surveillance by NSA that is not available to other countries. Ask Angela Merkel about this!

by Colin Fleming on September 17, 2014
Colin Fleming


Sure, there's no doubt about that. There is one vital difference with the data collection by private companies - it's mostly consensual. That said, I don't use Facebook or LinkedIn because I'm not comfortable with their data policies. However my data is with any number of online services which might be acquired by Facebook tomorrow, and then they'll have my data whether I like it or not - I still really have no control over it. Additionally, Facebook are able to derive a really frightening amount of information about me just from references to me by people who know me who do have Facebook accounts.

Really, the only option is to not allow companies to store this data. At a minimum, they should be forced to allow me to view and delete any data they hold on me - this is law in most of Europe but unevenly enforced.

I agree this issue will take more to sort out than one vote on Saturday. But if we don't start trying to affect this issue with our votes, nothing will ever happen. In my case, it's not a knee-jerk protest vote - I won't be voting for any party which supports (or I believe to support) mass data collection, period. It's not necessary and the potential for abuse is too great - it's just too dangerous.

by Mamari on September 17, 2014

Tim, thanks. I actually needed a clear articulation of the problem, the sheer volume of information has been incredibly hard to absorb and make sense of. Laying out the problem of the language used on both sides has helped me no end. And the comments here have been bloody useful also. In a way I feel resentful that so much is now being asked of us as voters. I heard Greenwald saying on RNZ this morninghow much he worked like a dog to get  this research in front of the public in time for the election. Sounds like if he been a bit more forthcoming with you, Tim, from the outset, we could have had much more time to make sense of this material.

by Mamari on September 17, 2014

Tim, thanks. I actually needed a clear articulation of the problem, the sheer volume of information has been incredibly hard to absorb and make sense of. Laying out the problem of the language used on both sides has helped me no end. And the comments here have been bloody useful also. In a way I feel resentful that so much is now being asked of us as voters. I heard Greenwald saying on RNZ this morninghow much he worked like a dog to get  this research in front of the public in time for the election. Sounds like if he been a bit more forthcoming with you, Tim, from the outset, we could have had much more time to make sense of this material.

by Ted Blaikie on September 18, 2014
Ted Blaikie

Listening to Morning Report this morning I heard a number of (what appeared to be) randomly selected people asked what they thought about mass surveillance in New Zealand. The general thrust of most responses seemed to be "it doesn't worry me because I have nothing to hide" or "someone needs to keep an eye on the bad guys".

So why does mass surveillance trouble me so greatly?

As history shows, the real danger of a Surveillance State is that, once established, it is inevitably turned against the political opponents of those that control it, especially when they feel threatened. When I refer to those in control I includes the those appointed to run the surveillance agencies just as much as the politicians who appoint them (think J Edgar Hoover). We have seen a hint of what I fear, with John Key releasing classified documents because his reputation is under attack and with his office assisting a Blogger to use the SIS to discredit his political opponent.

Also from time to time I strongly disagree with governments policies as many do. If I know any expressions of descent, which increasingly will involve using the internet, are going to be stored by government agencies and potentially used against me at any time in the future, it will have a chilling effect on my willingness to express that descent. The impact of this chilling effect must be unhealthy for our Democracy.

by Steve F on September 18, 2014
Steve F

@ Ted

sorry to be your english teacher but I think you'll find the word you're looking for is dissent, anyhow I digress.....if you really want to consider something with "chilling effect" then by now you will have read of this;

So, it is within the bounds of reason  that to follow Dotcom and Snowdens agenda, if these nasty bastards ( in Aus I mean) had got away with it then any Westfield shopping center would become a barren hinterland. Thats just one scenario. God knows what they were getting up to. Meta data, mass surveillance, five eyes, xkeystroke etc ., bring it on in droves. This is getting just too close to home. And by the way, dissent all you like, you can always buy a typewriter or use a hotmail account. Their servers are in Singapore. 

by Ted Blaikie on September 18, 2014
Ted Blaikie

Steve, Yes my spelling is a problem, hopefully you can look past that.

I don't accept that there is a "Dotcom and Snowdon agenda". Although I don't have a lot of time for Dotcom (he has his own agenda), you must surely agree he is a great publicist and his skills have assisted Snowdon and Greenwald in their efforts to expose the extent of mass surveillance in our democracies.  I am grateful to him for that.

Yes the activities of ISIL are chilling and I support efforts to defeat it and its ideology, but not at the expense of our democratic values.  We have had a long history of bogymen being used to justify restrictions of our freedom.  ISIL and its supporters are sophisticated enough not to be significantly impacted by mass surveillance.   I accept the need for targeted surveillance of its supporters in New Zealand.  However, I the potential implications of the developing mass surveillance system are personally far more threatening than a few ISIL supporters here in New Zealand.

by Tim Watkin on September 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

Mamari, he had agreed to NZ interviews when his book was released earlier in the year, but then disappeared. I guess he hadn't done the work by then, which is fair enough. He's got a life to live and not just in service of an election in one small country.

Wayne, yes that's one question I have. It has been said 5 eyes partners don't spy on each other, but then Key said he can't be sure the NSA isn't spying on NZers and Snowden's probably right he saw NZ emails. So what's going on there? (That was amidst Key going from "I'm right, he's wrong" on Sunday to "he's probably right" as well a few days later.

by Tim Watkin on September 18, 2014
Tim Watkin

William, it's not difficult but it's also not proven. You have the Inspector-General saying she hasn't seen "indiscriminate" spying, which is the exact word Greenwald used to say what is happening. You've got the Prime Minister making some very specific denials (as well as some very vague ones). He's said, for example, the GCSB doesn't even have the capability to conduct mass surveillance and they don't spy on New Zealanders without a warrant.

The fact is very few people have access to the facts on this, so again it comes back to what we mean by the words being used. Until we know what the PM means by "mass" for example, we can't judge if he's fudging.

by Wayne Mapp on September 18, 2014
Wayne Mapp


I don't really see a conflict between what Snowden and the PM are saying. The NSA will have their targets of interest. Some will be communicating with NZer's. I guess Snowden would see those emails, and then be able to look at the rest of the NZ end of that persons emails. But that is not mass surveillance, nor is it (in my view) spying on NZer's in the sense that the "5 eyes" partners use that term. They use that term in the sense of broad sweeps of another "5 eyes" nations emails (as apparently happened with Germany). 

Now you will appreciate that this is all deduction on my part, on the basis of being a lay person with an interest in such matters.

by Nick Gibbs on September 18, 2014
Nick Gibbs


Wayne, yes that's one question I have. It has been said 5 eyes partners don't spy on each other, but then Key said he can't be sure the NSA isn't spying on NZers and Snowden's probably right he saw NZ emails. So what's going on there? (That was amidst Key going from "I'm right, he's wrong" on Sunday to "he's probably right" as well a few days later.

No one said NZer's weren't spied on, the SIS does it all the time, to John Minto's great annoyance. NZ does conduct mass surveilance and has a gentlemen's agreement with the US that they won't conduct mass surveilance of kiwi either. But do they abide by that agreement? Key doesn't know.

by Ted Blaikie on September 18, 2014
Ted Blaikie

 I wondered about that word "indiscriminate" as well. I assume the Inspector-General chose it very carefully. If you discard one in a million emails is the mass surveillance still "indiscriminate"?  Unfortunately the Inspector-General say she will not be giving interviews so we may never know. Very convenient for the Government I would think.

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