Data Privacy and Security

New Zealand's Moment of Truth

To those of us who moved to New Zealand from other lands, the revelations in Kim Dotcom's Moment of Truth at Auckland town hall on Monday 15th September were hardly a surprise. NZ politics can feel insulated from the rest of the world, partly as a result of geography, partly due to its small population. International current affairs debates might reach as far as Australia and, on a few select topics, the US; but rarely further.

So while European, British and American citizens might have a good grasp of the lengths – or, more accurately, depths – to which governments will go in order to spy on the people who pay their wages, Kiwis have tended to be more care-free. Ignorance was bliss. That may have just changed.

There was little debate about government spying here until Kim Dotcom came along. Himself a 'victim' of illegal spying by the NZ government, for which the prime minister was forced to apologise, he's dragged the topic into the harsh light of day. If nothing else, that has led to some Kiwis questioning whether the benefits of having a secret service, particularly one so cosy with the US, outweigh the disadvantages.

On Monday night the usual suspects – Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Glen Greenwald – appeared (virtually, in the case of Assange and Snowden) and, with Kim Dotcom, presented their case. In short they claimed that:

  • The NZ government spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has access to the US NSA's X-Keyscore data gathering tool.
  • US NSA employees have access to Kiwis' emails and other communications.
  • There's a US NSA-operated base on NZ soil.
  • A mass domestic surveillance program is under development, based on interception of undersea cables under the codename Project Speargun. It awaits domestic legislation before it can begin operation in earnest.

There were other 'revelations' relating to Dotcom's ongoing US extradition saga, but if anything they diluted the spying message rather than reinforcing it.

The National government, led by John Key, has denied at least some of the claims made on Monday, but media here and around the world have pointed out that the denials aren't exactly reassuring.

Snowden himself was more scathing: "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," he wrote.

There is, not coincidentally, a general election looming here in New Zealand, in which Kim Dotcom has a personal interest. The outcome could be a coalition of some sort. There will be negotiations to be carried out, ground to be given. The “stop spying on NZ citizens” ticket might be a bigger winner than had previously been thought.

Due to the election, media outlets have to be careful about being accused of bias. Many of the online newspapers carrying the story opted to disable comments entirely. But not all. The New Zealand Herald solicited “Your Views on GSCB spying allegations” and at the time of writing had received over 400 responses. They make for interesting but not unexpected reading.

In my personal circle of friends and acquaintances, though, there's been little discussion. Whether out of politeness (in my experience, Kiwis are less likely than Brits and Americans to be vocal about their political affiliations), weary acceptance or plain apathy, it doesn't arise spontaneously in conversation. When pushed, a typical response would be, “Yeah. Not good, is it?”

This affair hasn't been handled particularly well by the government. The National party has seemed on the back foot throughout. But other mainstream parties have been reticent to criticise plans that, were they in government, they'd probably rubber-stamp too. The unspoken message from politicians with any grip on the reins of power has been a disdainful, "Yes, we spy on you. Who cares?"

Some do. But whether this is an important enough topic to perceptibly change the outcome of an election is something that will only be known after Saturday.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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