New Zealand Approves New Law Granting NSA-Like Capability To Intel Agency

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Perry

New Zealand's parliament building

The New Zealand parliament on Tuesday narrowly approved a new series of measures designed to provide their version of the National Security Agency greater access to the country’s telecommunications companies’ data.

Under the provisions of the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill — which passed 61 votes to 59 — network operators must “ensure that every public telecommunications network that the operator owns, controls, or operates, and every telecommunications service that the operator provides in New Zealand, has full interception capability.” This means that the Government Communications Security Bureau, analogous to the NSA, must be allowed to have the technical ability to tap into the networks of every telecommunications company within New Zealand.

Any new networks also have to allow for this intercept capability, which the Guardian reports will bring the GCSB in-line with the technical capabilities of the NSA and Britain’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). At present, the NSA has used a combination of legal authorities, voluntary agreements, and less-than-voluntary methods to gain access to the data that streams among many of the major Internet companies’ cables.

The measure, it should be noted, passed with the support of New Zealander telecommunications companies National, ACT, and United Future. It also does not provide for an unlimited authority to tap communications absent a warrant. Communications Minister Amy Adams sought to assure the public that the bill as passed would “safeguard public safety and security” in its implementation. “And it does not change existing privacy protections,” she added. “This bill only relates to real time interception. It does not require data to be stored, nor stored data to be disclosed.”

The vote matters particularly given New Zealand’s place in the Five Eyes intelligence network — a group composed of the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Members of the opposition Green Party cited that membership while criticizing the legislation, with party co-leader Russel Norman saying that the bill’s passage was “part of the price for membership of the Five Eyes network.” Norman has been critical of the alliance in the past, pointing to the backlash that the United States has seen diplomatically in recent months.

New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes intelligence network has managed to fly mostly under the radar since the drama first began this summer. Prime Minister John Key has repeatedly denied that his government uses the NSA’s programs to spy illegally on his own citizens or that they participated in eavesdropping on allied nations, with little information about the programs that they themselves run in the public at this time. What has been made public, however, is that the NSA reportedly used the friendly nations of the Five Eyes — including New Zealand — to test run a data-gathering program known as ThinThread.

In contrast, the vast majority of the files that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden absconded with relate to the U.S. relationship in sharing data with the United Kingdom, which stands out even among the Five Eyes. Because of that, most of the pieces that have been published since then have focused on the activities of those two countries in particular. That hasn’t kept the other members out of the limelight as well, including recent revelations regarding Australia’s links to the NSA’s spying.

According to reports in the German newsmagazine Der Speigel and the Sydney Morning Herald, the NSA worked closely with the Australian government to allow for intercepting communications in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and East Timor via the Australian embassies in those countries. Key has insisted that New Zealand played no part in these activities, but again refused to comment on precisely what spycraft the GCSB does participate in.