New Zealand spying row: Snowden as election wildcard?

The former NSA contractor serves up timely allegations ahead of New Zealand's elections on Sept. 20, potentially undermining incumbent Prime Minister John Key.

Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald/AP
Former National Security Agency systems analyst turned leaker Edward Snowden appears via video link from Russia to hundreds of people in Auckland, New Zealand, Town Hall, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. Snowden said the NSA is collecting mass surveillance data on New Zealanders through its XKeyscore program and has set up a facility in the South Pacific nation to tap into vast amounts of data.

Former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden today accused the New Zealand government of spying on its citizens, just days before the country goes to the polls in national elections.

“If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Intercept, an online news site run by journalist Glenn Greenwald. In it, he said that he regularly saw data from New Zealand when he was working for the NSA.

His allegation threatens to upend what has so far been a predictable campaign – a poll three days ago showed Prime Minister John Key as the choice of 61.6 percent of voters, compared to 17.9 percent for his closest challenger, according to the New Zealand Herald.

Snowden's charges drew a quick rebuttal from Mr. Key, who vigorously denied that New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) runs a mass surveillance program.

“There is not, and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB,” he said in a statement.

In his op-ed, Snowden urged New Zealanders to vote, writing that “come Sept. 20, New Zealanders have a checkbox of their own.”

If you live in New Zealand, whatever party you choose to vote for, bear in mind the opportunity to send a message that this government won’t need to spy on us to hear: The liberties of free people cannot be changed behind closed doors. It’s time to stand up. It’s time to restore our democracies. It’s time to take back our rights. And it starts with you.

Snowden says Key's government, through the GCSB, funnels mass surveillance data into the NSA's XKeyscore program. He writes:

The GCSB provides mass surveillance data into XKEYSCORE. They also provide access to the communications of millions of New Zealanders to the NSA at facilities such as the GCSB station at Waihopai, and the Prime Minister is personally aware of this fact. Importantly, they do not merely use XKEYSCORE, but also actively and directly develop mass surveillance algorithms for it. GCSB’s involvement with XKEYSCORE is not a theory, and it is not a future plan. The claim that it never went ahead, and that New Zealand merely “looked at” but never participated in the Five Eyes’ system of mass surveillance is false, and the GCSB’s past and continuing involvement with XKEYSCORE is irrefutable.

Key went on New Zealand television programs over the weekend to say that New Zealand intelligence agencies considered setting up a mass surveillance system, but ultimately decided against it.

Snowden’s accusations come on the same day that Kim Dotcom, the New Zealand resident fighting extradition to the US to face charges of internet piracy, copyright breaches and money laundering, hosted a “Moment of Truth” forum at Auckland Town Hall.

Snowden and Julian Assange spoke via video-conferencing at the forum, which drew an audience of about 1,000. According to the Guardian live-blog of the event, the speakers questioned Key's release of the classified documents today, and spoke about Saturday's vote. 

Greenwald is questioning why the New Zealand prime minister, John Key, has chosen to release documents today that the PM claims prove no mass surveillance of Kiwis ever occurred. 

If the information was properly classified, he asks, doesn’t releasing it today jeopardize national security? “The only other alternative is that this information should never have been marked classified in the first place because it was being hidden not for national security reasons but to conceal from the public what this government was doing,” he says.

Snowden's comments drew cheers, the Guardian notes:

The former NSA contractor says that some Kiwis might believe the alleged surveillance is justified - but that doesn’t justify the secrecy with which such surveillance is carried out.

“These decisions don’t belong to John Key ... that decision belongs exclusively to the people of this country,” Snowden says, to raucous applause. “I think it’s wrong, I think it’s wrong of any politician to take away the public’s seat at the table.” 

Kim Dotcom, who is ineligible to run in Saturday’s elections, but who donated $2.4 million to the Internet Mana Party, promised that his party, if elected, would stop mass surveillance and “close one of the five eyes,” referring to the intelligence-sharing partnership between New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US and the UK. 

Fran O'Sullivan, a political correspondent for the New Zealand Herald, wrote that he doubts if the "Moment of Truth" forum will greatly impact the elections.

If Kim Dotcom thinks his Moment of Truth will affect the outcome of Saturday’s election, he is seriously deluded... The mass surveillance issue was always a red herring, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden presented no concrete evidence of privacy breaches, Julian Assange was a sideshow….Dotcom set out to demolish the Prime Minister’s credibility. He has spectacularly failed.” 

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