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 Petone on September 18, 2014

On reflection, think I'm going to have to walk-back my comment agreeing with Stuart et al about muddying the water.  I guess my biases got in the way.. have not been happy with the false equivalence in a lot of media reporting.

Anyway, yes it is possible that both Key and Snowden/Greenwald are correct and/or telling the truth (not always the same thing).  S/G say the GCSB is "involved" and also "actively abetting" which may be true even if GCSB does not indulge in mass surveillance themselves.  Whatever the Southern Cross CEO thinks, the cable may be tapped, possibly without the GCSB's knowledge, and even if not, the NSA still hoovers loads of traffic via other sources such as its Prism programme that hacks into Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook etc.  That may be the source of the NZ comms that Snowden has seen via Xkeyscore (which I understand to be the reporting tool and/or repository for the filtered data from a number of different surveillance programmes).  Key says there never has been mass surveillance by the GCSB, but the GCSB may still have access to NSA's mass surveillance, even if they are in theory required to have a warrant for anyone they're looking up. I expect there is far more available than just the NZ end of a foreign person of interest's emails, however the briefing slides that Snowden exposed suggests that information is only kept on the likely suspects (pundits for example), rather than the entire population.

It is also possible that Cortex might have a requirement to collect all internet traffic metadata for purposes of cyber security, but not for surveillance. 


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