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NSA whistleblower Snowden says kiwis are 'being watched'

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says kiwis are 'being watched'

By Fiona Rotherham

Sept. 15 (BusinessDesk) - Fugitive spying whistleblower Edward Snowden put in an appearance via the internet at tonight's Internet Party Moment of Truth event to back up his claims that mass surveillance of New Zealanders is already taking place despite government denials.

Snowden had earlier posted an article on The Intercept website entitled "New Zealand's Prime Minister isn't telling the truth about mass surveillance", where he said any statement that mass surveillance isn't performed in New Zealand, or that internet communications are not comprehensively intercepted and monitored, is categorically false.

"If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched," he said. He also told the event there were two US National Security Agency facilities in New Zealand - one in Auckland and one further north.

Prime Minister John Key released declassified documents just before the Moment of Truth event, where 800 people had to be turned away from the packed Auckland Town Hall while more than 22,000 viewers watched on the YouTube livestream. Key again denied the claims by Snowden and American journalist Glen Greenwald concerning the operations of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Greenwald also released a story today on The Intercept website which said New Zealand's spy agency, the GCSB, worked in 2012 and 2013 to implement a mass metadata surveillance system as top government officials publicly insisted no such programme was being planned and would not be legally permitted.

Both he and Snowden didn't add any new revelations beyond what was in the articles they published just before the event, although they both questioned why Key could release previously classified documents simply to defend his own reputation rather than in the national interest, and whether the documents should have been classified in the first place.

Greenwald said documents provided by Snowden show that the New Zealand government worked in secret to exploit a new internet surveillance law enacted in the wake of revelations of illegal domestic spying to initiate a new metadata collection programme that appeared to be designed to collect information about New Zealanders' communications.

Snowden accused Key of misleading the public about GCSB's role in mass surveillance.

"The prime minister's claim to the public, that 'there is not and there never has been any mass surveillance', is false," the former National Security Agency analyst wrote. "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."

While speaking via the internet link, Snowden said Key was "carefully parsing his words" when it came to mass surveillance. While at the NSA Snowden routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in his work with a mass surveillance tool shared with the GCSB, called X Keyscore, which searches for keywords and phrases that justify opening the metadata extracted from cyber messages.

It was not limited to or even used largely for the purposes of cyber security, as has been claimed, but was instead used primarily for reading individuals' private email, text messages and internet traffic, he said. "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," he said.

The X Keyscore system offers, but doesn't require for use, a so-called Five Eyes Defeat which is an optional filter or single checkbox. This allows the analysts to prevent research results from being returned on those countries from a particular search. The Five Eyes programme also involves Australia, Canada, the UK and the US and was first documented by activist and journalist Nicky Hager in his 1996 book, Secret Power.

"Ask yourself: why do analysts have a checkbox on a top secret system that hides the results of mass surveillance in New Zealand if there is no mass surveillance in New Zealand?, " Snowden said.

Greenwald said the GCSB contributed large amounts of metadata on New Zealanders to the X-Keyscore database. Snowden said the GCSB didn't merely use X Keyscore but also actively and directly developed mass surveillance algorithms for it.

The top secret documents provided by Snowden apparently show that the GCSB, with ongoing NSA cooperation, implemented phase one of the mass surveillance programme codenamed 'Speargun' at some point in 2012 or early 2013. Speargun involved the covert installation of cable access equipment - an apparent reference to surveillance of the country's main undersea cable, the Southern Cross cable, which carries most of the country's internet traffic to the rest of the world.

After that was completed Greenwald said Speargun moved to phase two, under which "metadata probes" were to be inserted into the cables. The NSA documents note that the first such metadata probe was scheduled for mid-2013.

"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 analyse it against and trace connections through," Greenwald said.

Southern Cross Cable scotched the claim, saying its cables linking New Zealand to Australia, the Pacific and the US were untouched and that no equipment was installed in either the cables themselves or the landing stations that could result in mass interception of communications.

“I can tell you quite categorically there is no facility by the NSA, the GCSB or anyone else on the Southern Cross cable network,” Southern Cross chief executive Anthony Briscoe said in a statement. "I can give you absolute assurances from Southern Cross – and me as a Kiwi – that there are no sites anywhere on the Southern Cross network that have to do with interception or anything else the NSA or GCSB might want to do."

But Snowden said the company wouldn't necessarily know the spying was taking place.

Key released the declassified documents to correct what he dubbed "misinformation" put in the public domain about the GCSB.

"There is not, and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB," he reiterated.

Regarding X Keyscore, he said he wouldn't discuss specific programmes the GCSB may use, but he said the agency doesn't collect mass metadata on New Zealanders and is therefore not contributing such data to anyone else.

Snowden questioned why even now, Key wouldn't talk about X Key Score. He said if the public wanted such a system due to concerns about foreign threats that was their decision to make, but it was not one that belonged to Key or GCSB officials without public debate and public consent. "That decision belongs to the people of that country."

The impending release of the NSA files from Snowden forced the government to admit last week that its foreign spy agency had been gearing up for mass surveillance.

Key said the GCSB had been working on a business study for a form of mass cyber protection for more than a year following cyber attacks on several large New Zealand companies. He stopped the work in March 2013 after an internal review uncovered a number of problems at the agency. The review by Rebecca Kitteridge was sparked when illegal surveillance of Dotcom came to light in September 2012. Her report found a further 88 Kiwis were unlawfully snooped on over a decade.

Key later said Greenwald’s documents might show New Zealand had been spying on some of its trading partners but this aspect - which had the potential to cause problems on the trading front - was not touched on at tonight's event.

Kim Dotcom's lawyer Bob Amsterdam reiterated his concerns over the Trans Tasman Pacific Agreement (TTPA), claiming it was an agreement that would "take from you your sovereignty." The international trade lawyer warned the US could block any benefits from the proposed regional free trade agreement between 12 countries, claiming Hollywood and other big businesses used trade agreements to impose American expectations in the domestic laws of other countries.

He said the US Congress could veto any trade benefits or even impose sanctions on countries that didn't meet US expectations. Dotcom is facing a legal battle over copyright issues.

The papers Key released show the GCSB considered a variety of options for cyber security and presented an initial range to Cabinet for consideration in 2012. While the Cabinet initially expressed an interest in the agency developing a future business case for the strongest form of protection for the public and private sectors, that decision was later revoked, he said.

"The business case for the highest form of protection was never completed or presented to Cabinet and never approved. Put simply, it never happened," Key said.

In September last year a Cabinet minute formally rescinded the request for a business case and the introduction of a new, narrower project named Cortex. That narrower programme was approved by Cabinet in July this year but Key provided little detail on what it involved. All costings relating to the various cyber security options, including the one introduced, had been redacted in the documents Key released.

Greenwald's article said the documents indicate that Speargun was not just an idea that stalled at the discussion stage. He produced evidence of a top secret NSA document discussing the activities of its surveillance partners that reported under the heading of "New Zealand" that Partner cable access programme achieves Phase one.

Critically, Greenwald said, the NSA documents note in more than one place that completion of Speargun was impeded by one obstacle, the need to enact a new spying law that would allow the GCSB, for the first time, to spy on its own citizens as well as legal residents of the country.

The legislation eventually passed by National was said to merely provide oversight and to clarify that targeted domestic surveillance which had long been carried out by the agency was legal.

(BusinessDesk)

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