A law unto themselves | The Jackal

14 Apr 2013

A law unto themselves

Earlier this week, while John Key was conveniently out of the country, a report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge entitled Review of Compliance at the Government Communications Security Bureau (PDF), was leaked to certain media outlets. Here's the crux of the matter:

It is my clear conclusion that there needs to be more capacity in both the legal and compliance areas at GCSB.

If you read between the lines, the report is pretty damning of how the GCSB was conducting its operations. Consider the advice from the Solicitor-General for instance, who said there would be an "adverse outcome" from any Court concerning the assistance the spy agency gave to the Police and SIS, and there can be no doubt that the rogue agency has been acting illegally.

With such a clear breach of the law, you would expect the government to do everything within its power to ensure the GCSB changed its procedures. Instead, they look set to retrospectively change the law to make it legal for the GCSB to spy on New Zealand citizens. There will be no accountability for the numerous breaches of law that have already occurred, because apparently the spooks are a law unto themselves.

Putting aside the fact that a change in law after it has been repeatedly broken is morally questionable, such a change would be a clear breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by New Zealand in 1978.

If you're wondering why National MPs and various other propagandists are clamouring over themselves to say that the law isn't clear enough concerning the GCSB's illegal spying on New Zealand citizens, look no further than the Echelon system being used and abused.

Also known as Five Eyes to denote the five countries involved, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Echelon is a remnant of the cold war that's now used to monitor telephone calls, faxes, e-mail and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmissions. Basically echelon gathers and stores all electronic communications, including those made in New Zealand.

The problem is that the illegal spying occurs all the time, and there is no real protection of privacy or confidentiality of correspondence. Using the Echelon system, a spy simply inputs various search queries and is then provided with all the relevant data. Therefore if the GCSB was to adhere to the letter of the law, it would preclude them or any agent they might employ from using the Echelon system at all, because it's continuously intercepting and storing information on New Zealand citizens.

Like the Government Communications Security Bureau Act 2003 (PDF), the definition of spying is very clear... The spying occurs when the communication is intercepted, not when that information is used. The change in law that National will seek is a clarification that the GCSB will be able to use the domestic information gathered by the Echelon system, which they have been doing since at least April 2003 anyway.

That means New Zealand is in breach of various international agreements and obligations, putting the current government at odds with people's right to privacy, which is a human right.

Therefore extending the powers of the GCSB isn't recommended. Instead, those who knowingly broke the law should be held to account. But considering who's in charge of the GCSB, unless people take private court action, that's not likely to occur anytime soon.