Monday, 2 September 2013

Radio National Interview on "Spying, Lying and Democracy" (Monday, September 2, 2013)

Radio National Nights interview on the topic: 'Spying, Lying and Democracy' was very frustrating. You can listen to it at: 

My own performance in the interview was the pits. Not only did I fail to make the basic point that spying and lying about spying have always gone together, but I only got through around a third of the material. I've also made these points on Facebook which means that they can be easily accessed by the NSA directly via Prism (enabling direct access to Facebook’s US based servers) but not, according to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in his Campbell Live interview on 14th August, by the GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) or SIS (Security Intelligence Service). Yeah, right...

This interview can be viewed at:

This interview is best considered in conjunction with a reading of the following articles from The Guardian website at:

Three key points I didn't get to make (if you'll excuse the pun). First, Key repeatedly stated that the GCSB only had requests from the SIS to provide information on 88 individuals during the last decade, that is 9 per year. But even if this is true it does not mean that the GCSB is only collecting data on nine New Zealanders a year. It would hardly need to employ 300 people and have a budget of $63 million (in 2012/13) if its surveillance activities were that narrow. 

Second, towards the end of the interview Key said that the GCSB had told him that to listen to every phone call and read every text message today, the GCSB would need to employ 130,000 people (only 30,000 people more than the NSA actually does employ by the way), and have a budget of $6.6 billion. This may well be true but the whole point of Snowden's revelations are precisely that they don't have to if they can use a search engine (like XKeyscore) to identify and access the material that is of interest to them and then focus on that.

Alternatively, if they are engaging in information sharing with the NSA then they could request and/or have information provided to them on a relatively small number of individuals in New Zealand. But this does not mean that the NSA is not monitoring the Internet activities of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders. In fact, it most likely is doing precisely this. And as well as infringing upon our right to privacy in a big way, it also strikes me that this constitutes a fairly major encroachment on New Zealand's 'national security', something that the SIS and GCSB are meant to be defending.

Third, Key stated on several occasions that it is 'factually totally incorrect' to claim that the GCSB is engaged in wholesale spying. But these statements would only be try if one is prepared to accept what many would consider to be an unacceptably narrow definition of spying, that is, as only occurring in cases involving the detailed investigation of particular individuals. But what Snowden's revelations make clear is that the NSA and other allied intelligence agencies are not just spying in this narrow sense but much more worryingly engaging in historically unprecedented mass surveillance. It is this mass surveillance that enables these agencies to identify and focus on the vastly smaller number of individuals that their search engines flag as of interest to them.

The upshot is that Key’s performance in the Campbell Live interview was truly impressive as an example of political spin. Without directly lying about anything, he made a series of statements that encouraged the public to draw inferences that are false. For example:

• The SIS only request information on a small number of individuals per year (may be true), therefore the GCSB is not engaged in the surveillance of the electronic activity of a large number of New Zealanders (almost certainly false).

• The GCSB does not have the personnel and funding to listen to everyone’s phone calls and read all their text messages (certainly true), therefore it is not engaged in the wholesale surveillance (either directly itself or else through information sharing with the NSA) of the electronic activity of a large number of New Zealanders (almost certainly false).


  1. Thanks for this further update, however your Radio National Interview on "Spying, Lying and Democracy" was hardly the pits, it was obvious to me that you were cut off way too early and before you were able to pin down / clarify your points....



  2. Thanks for this. Yes, if I had half an hour rather than 13 minutes I would have been able to provide a fuller and well rounded discussion of the topic.