The Dim-Post

March 5, 2015

And we’re off

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:06 am

Yesterday in preparation for the Hager/Snowden revelations the Prime Minister warned that whatever Hager said was all a lie. Today the talking point is that everyone always knew that the GCSB carried out surveillance in the Pacific, so who cares?

It’s true, we did know that. But we didn’t know it was mass surveillance, and we didn’t know that all of the data was simply forwarded to the US. The argument for the GCSB’s activities has always been that it safeguards our regional security interests. But now we know that its primary function is diplomatic. It collects data that the US can’t and forwards it on, and in exchange we get to be members of the Five-Eyes alliance.

Now, you could argue that Five-Eyes membership is a big win for safe-guarding our regional security. Maybe it is, I don’t really know. We’re not exactly beset by threats down here. But this is an area in which ‘national interest’ and the interests of politicians, diplomats and intelligence elites blur into each other. If you’re the Prime Minister or the head of the GCSB, or MFAT, then participation in this club is a huge win. Key gets to go to the White House and play golf with Obama. Our spies get access to global information networks. We get free stuff from the US. Totally awesome. No question that this is a great deal for them.

What’s unclear is whether any of this delivers any gains at all to the New Zealand public. Does spying on everyone in Kiribati and giving the information to the US keep us safe from terrorists, etc? Maybe in a super-indirect way it does! But it seems more likely – to me – that the benefits go to members of our political elite and the rhetoric about ‘keeping us safe’ is mostly nonsense.

47 Comments »

  1. GCSB/MFAT are primarily driven by the national benefit, rather than the personal benefit of their senior staff.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 5, 2015 @ 9:16 am

  2. GCSB and MFAT staff don’t write blogs calling you a pointy-headed scientist in an ivory tower, so I don’t see why you write blogs saying they’re corrupt.

    (Disclaimer: I don’t work in the public service)

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 5, 2015 @ 9:39 am

  3. i think it more likely that our senior centre left and centre right politicians just believe this is in the national interest. Perks of the jobs cynicism is a bit too broad, it be said about any aspect of bring s minister.

    Little feigning “surprise” though doesn’t inspire confidence in the checks and balances.

    Comment by NeilM — March 5, 2015 @ 9:51 am

  4. GCSB/MFAT are primarily driven by the national benefit, rather than the personal benefit of their senior staff.

    That assumes that “the national benefit” is an objective end that can be defined and quantified in a non-controversial way. Alternatively, if “the national benefit” is a conroversial notion of which many different versions exist, then the biases/institutional goals of the agency that is defining it could reasonably be expected to impact on how they finally assess it. Or, to put it another way, do you think the SIS/GCSB would ever go to the Government and say “it would help the national benefit for our budgets to be cut by 10% because we really don’t need to do as much spying as we are doing”?

    GCSB and MFAT staff don’t write blogs calling you a pointy-headed scientist in an ivory tower…

    But if they did, wouldn’t they have a point?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — March 5, 2015 @ 9:56 am

  5. > That assumes that “the national benefit” is an objective end that can be defined and quantified in a non-controversial way. Alternatively, if “the national benefit” is a conroversial notion of which many different versions exist, then the biases/institutional goals of the agency that is defining it could reasonably be expected to impact on how they finally assess it. Or, to put it another way, do you think the SIS/GCSB would ever go to the Government and say “it would help the national benefit for our budgets to be cut by 10% because we really don’t need to do as much spying as we are doing”?

    Yes I agree with all that.

    I just think it should be possible to debate the issue without impugning the individuals involved. By and large I think they try to do a good job, as they see it.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 5, 2015 @ 10:18 am

  6. The accusation of feather bedding by govt institutions, perhaps even within university departments, is an easy one to make but seem evidence might be of value.

    But the checks on unnecessary spending are presumably from having alternate parties in govt neither of which have sort to slash the security budget. That could be because they are all victims of institutional capture I suppose.

    Comment by NeilM — March 5, 2015 @ 10:20 am

  7. @Antoine,

    It may just be a disagreement over interpretation, but I didn’t see Danyl as “impugning the individuals involved [in the spy agencies]”. The claim “this is a great deal for them” was based on the institutional benefits that their organisations receive, not the personal benefits they themselves get.

    Because based on personal experience, I agree with you about the motivations of those who work in these agencies.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — March 5, 2015 @ 10:26 am

  8. The election result validated everything – in Key’s mind, and probably much of the country too.

    He is now free to make absurd statements, followed by absurd statements which contradict the previous absurd statements. Somebody will say his position is “untenable”, but it will only be untenable in LogicLand, not in ours.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — March 5, 2015 @ 10:34 am

  9. I’m a little bemused by the whole thing. We’ve been a card carrying member of Five Eyes since 1948 which means that every Govt knew about it plus some unknown numbers of other people. In 1980 we knew about Echelon and forestry workers drove past the Tangimoana system just about every day.. Project Apple it was then called and most of us knew it was a spy site.

    So about all thats changed is that capabilities have improved over the decades and the general public has become better educated about spying activities. Perhaps more importantly the public would be hard pressed to think of any concrete example of how it has been adversely affected by these spy activities… about all I can see is a change in public perception that might be either approval, disapproval or indifference.

    JC

    Comment by JC — March 5, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  10. @AG

    It was that closing crack about ‘the benefits go to members of our political elite’, which seemed to imply that they captured the benefit in their personal capacity. I don’t think that’s generally true of public servants.

    I’ll shut up about this now.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 5, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  11. @JC

    I think that’s why it doesn’t get much resonance with the broader public. Most people don’t believe their freedoms are at risk.

    If we were heading towards some sort of Police/security state then surveillance activities would be a symptom not the cause.

    Comment by NeilM — March 5, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  12. JC,

    So about all thats changed is that capabilities have improved over the decades and the general public has become better educated about spying activities.

    So all that’s changed is … everything?

    Perhaps more importantly the public would be hard pressed to think of any concrete example of how it has been adversely affected by these spy activities …

    Well, we don’t know what we don’t know, right? But stories like this maybe give pause before thinking “what could go wrong with letting an agency have access to every detail about our online/electronic lives?” http://www.wired.com/2013/09/nsa-stalking/

    Comment by Flashing Light — March 5, 2015 @ 10:53 am

  13. There’s an entire branch of economics (public choice theory) mostly devoted to solving the problem of self-interest in politicians, bureaucrats etc, and many decades of state-sector reforms introducing more transparency, targets, oversight, measurable delivery etc to ensure that public servants are (mostly) working for the public and not themselves and their departments. The problem is that institutions like defense, MFAT and the security agencies haven’t really been reformed.

    Comment by danylmc — March 5, 2015 @ 10:55 am

  14. Although the output delivery of defence and security are much more prone to be seen very differently depending on your politics. Which is why the overall consensus, til now at least, of the two main parties has probably been reassuring to many but not reassuring for some.

    Comment by NeilM — March 5, 2015 @ 11:06 am

  15. @Danyl

    > The problem is that institutions like defense, MFAT and the security agencies haven’t really been reformed.

    Call me old-fashioned but I think the buck needs to stop with elected officials.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 5, 2015 @ 11:48 am

  16. @ JC

    “Perhaps more importantly the public would be hard pressed to think of any concrete example of how it has been adversely affected by these spy activities”

    This is probably true in NZ, and will probably remain so in that I don’t think we as a whole are going to end up in a soviet style police state anytime soon. But people implicitly understand the fact that if you don’t care about systems and their effect on individuals, then those same systems will ultimately come to affect the public. And quite apart from this, they don’t ever really have to affect the public directly to have a chilling effect.

    @ Antoine

    You said you didn’t work for them, but you aren’t married to one by any chance?

    “Call me old-fashioned but I think the buck needs to stop with elected officials.”

    Danyl’s point encompasses the notion that there is a system of enclosure and reinforcement and disconnection from the public, and incentives among the elite that precisely means the buck doesn’t, can’t and won’t stop with elected officials, the way things stand.

    Comment by Joe-90 — March 5, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

  17. >Perhaps more importantly the public would be hard pressed to think of any concrete example of how it has been adversely affected by these spy activities… about all I can see is a change in public perception that might be either approval, disapproval or indifference.

    The public can quickly think of one adverse affect – they have to pay for it. But can you supply a concrete example of how they have been benefited by these spy activities? Personally, the only one I see is employing some spooks.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 5, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

  18. “It collects data that the US can’t and forwards it on, and in exchange we get to be members of the Five-Eyes alliance.

    The USA will collect this data, with or without our permission. All we are doing is slightly lowering their operating costs.

    The USA has compromised the data security of the Germans, I don’t think they’ll have a problem with Kiribati or NZ.

    Comment by unaha-closp — March 5, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

  19. @12

    “So all that’s changed is … everything?”

    Hardly. The reasons for spying to the limit of human or technology would surely be the same. Public reaction to the intrusiveness over the decades doesn’t seem to have changed and despite posturing in opposition the two main parties when in power don’t seem to have made changes that protected privacy any better. If anything PMs over the decades seem to have a great deal more respect for the spies (or have been captured by the spy rhetoric) to about the same extent.

    As for the Wired cases of abuse thats been common for decades as well including here to a lesser extent where cops have tracked GFs since the time of the Wanganui computer database dating back to at least the 80s.. come to think of it members of the public have used the technology to do damn near as much in following wives or enemies.

    It would be ironic if the public becomes more concerned about spying based on its own huge access to personal data through Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.

    JC

    Comment by JC — March 5, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

  20. “Perhaps more importantly the public would be hard pressed to think of any concrete example of how it has been adversely affected by these spy activities”

    It’s true that much of the adverse effect is likely to be “not in my name” things, rather than direct impact on NZ individuals. But while there aren’t many, we do have some concrete examples of inappropriate or illegal use of personal information by government agencies, so we can see at least some of the evidence which suggests why we shouldn’t trust them too much and give them too much scope to misuse their capability. The farcical outcome of the Urewera case, spying on Dotcom, and many years ago the SIS and police behaviour with Aziz Choudry and David Small, are all examples where intelligence capabilities were misused. With additional technical capability and inadequate oversight, intelligence can be misused more widely. We’re not going to become the Soviet Union or East Germany, but I could imagine a New Zealand where, for example, it becomes harder to organise a public protest about Tibet, because we mustn’t offend the Chinese. Or where intelligence collected across the Pacific is used to support Australia’s refugee policies.

    Comment by Dr Foster — March 5, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

  21. >There’s an entire branch of economics (public choice theory) mostly devoted to solving the problem of self-interest in politicians, bureaucrats etc, and many decades of state-sector reforms introducing more transparency, targets, oversight, measurable delivery etc to ensure that public servants are (mostly) working for the public and not themselves and their departments.

    There’s a branch of economics dedicated to it? Well then, we must have made progress! I wonder if we could get cold fusion quicker if we dedicated a branch of economics to it. Or is there already one? Presumably it’s there in some branch of that giant fruitless tree.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 5, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

  22. Gotta love public choice theory.

    Comment by Rob Hosking — March 5, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  23. The USA will collect this data, with or without our permission. All we are doing is slightly lowering their operating costs.

    In terms of cost, while this is true today, it used to be very expensive – intercept bases were big affairs, needed to be geographically close to target areas, required stable and compliant governments etc.

    So today it’s really more of a matter of convenience than anything else for the US in that our security apparatus becomes an adjunct department of theirs (which is extremely handy if you want to keep tabs on/influence you “allies”), but it arguably advantages the NZ security services proportionally more than our allies, in that our chaps can access to subsidised tech and get to perform domestic public/industrial counter-intelligence without breaking domestic laws by utilising arms-length data capture and analysis arrangements.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 5, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

  24. So no one who is competing for contracts against american suppliers should be in anyway concerned about their meta (or actual) data being collected and passed directely though to the US intelligence organisations?

    Comment by Ian — March 5, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

  25. My favourite thing about public choice theory is how vociferously economists deny that economists could act in self-interest, or meet a market for opinions that justify policy that favours people who employ economists.

    Comment by Stephen J — March 5, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

  26. Just a note on Public Choice Theory – Just because neoclassical market models ‘assume’ rational self-interest on the part of producers and consumers, most *good* economists don’t actually think people are rational, or indeed act in their own rational self interest.
    Public Choice Theory is (was) very much a ‘Chicago School’ phenomenon, pretty fringe and ideological, not backed up by much evidence, and not exactly persuasive. Calling it ‘an entire branch’ of economics would probably discredit economics as a ‘branch’ of social science, but perhaps that would be consistent with previous posts on economics?

    Comment by Ben — March 5, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

  27. > most *good* economists don’t actually think people are rational, or indeed act in their own rational self interest.

    No more than *good* astrologers believe that human destiny is in the planetary alignments. They know it’s all about reading the audience and telling a good story. The silly complicated numbers are just window dressing.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 5, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

  28. @Ben: There’s a lot of people here who think the entire discipline of economics is a waste of time.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — March 5, 2015 @ 7:55 pm

  29. Or may be the tin foil hat wearing Hager is once again full of shit and 95% of the country thinks he is a left wing loon who makes his living stealing personal correspondence from his political enemies and denouncing them for doing the same thing he does. The only difference being is that he does it for money and the right wing do it for national security sort of protecting citizens well actually nothing that is of personal benefit like he does. ..crazy world we live in.

    Comment by David — March 5, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

  30. I wonder what Snowden thinks of Greenwald using this information to run a personal vendetta against Key.

    There’s some issues that should be debated but I think Hager’s involvement just suggests The Herald wants a bit of controversy. Not the first time a journalist and Hager have played all innocent when a PM had criticised them.

    Comment by NeilM — March 5, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

  31. Certainly a crazy world you live in, David 29. Eight errors of fact in one brief post. Impressive.

    The “nothing that is of personal benefit” line is the real zinger.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — March 5, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

  32. Don’t you ever get tired of being a trite concern-troll NeilM? Snowden and Greenwald are in pretty regular contact so I doubt the release of this information has come as any surprise to him.

    Also David @29 – NSA documents count as personal information now? You must be referring to Dirty Politics, but if you’d actually read the book or even paid attention to the media reports you’d know that Hager deliberately left out the personal details that was contained in the information that was supplied to him… but then I guess you wouldn’t be able to use that piss-weak line to avoid addressing the actual content of his book and what it has to say about the people who are currently entrusted with running this country.

    Comment by Rob — March 5, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

  33. David, on the stolen correspondence argument against Hagar what do you reckon about tax authorities around the world (including the IRD) making use of stolen banking records to investigate tax evasion? http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31642902

    Comment by TerryB — March 5, 2015 @ 10:58 pm

  34. >There’s a lot of people here who think the entire discipline of economics is a waste of time.

    I know. I’ve been reading and commenting on Dimpost for goodness knows how long. About a decade? More? I can certainly remember a time before Danyl supported National, which puts it pre-2008, which is as early as I could find archives for.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 5, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

  35. Oh…there’s another Ben…

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 5, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

  36. @BenW: Heh, I think Danyl would be quite happy if everybody forgot there was a time he supported National, let alone a time before it…

    Comment by kalvarnsen — March 6, 2015 @ 12:18 am

  37. Hey, here’s a question. If a Labour-Green government came in next election, who thinks they’d pull out of Five Eyes?

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — March 6, 2015 @ 7:31 am

  38. I think a Labour-Green govt will be a tight spot with their activists vs the realities of taking a definitive step out of the Anglosphere, and will find something by way of increased oversight and better protections within NZ borders to satisfy spook-haters like me while leaving the bones of current arrangements in place. A recalcitrant NZ establishment + the Shearer/Goff contingent will make anything more unachievable.

    Comment by Stephen J — March 6, 2015 @ 7:54 am

  39. Hey, here’s a question. If a Labour-Green government came in next election, who thinks they’d pull out of Five Eyes?

    Who knows? Who’d have predicted the Key Government’s ceremonial apology to Tuhoe over the Helen Clark-sanctioned ‘terror’ raids? The only thing that’s certain is that both the raids and the apology were driven by pragmatism over principle.

    Re. the ‘anglosphere’ – here’s John Howard back in 1999:
    “We have been seen by countries, not only in the region but around the world, as being able to do something that probably no other country could do, because of the special characteristics we have, because we occupy a special place – we are a European Western civilisation with strong links with North America, but here we are in Asia.”

    Howard let that stand for five days, before rapidly backtracking in the face of Indonesian and Malaysian outrage. When Bush II clumsily revived the ‘deputy sheriff’ nonsense in 2003, Howard rushed to distance himself distance himself:
    “Can I make it very clear. I don’t see this country as being a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, as having any kind of enforcement role in our region.”

    Now the NZ Government behaves precisely as Howard described Australia’s role in 1999. Compared to Indonesia’s threatened clout back then, the fawning response from the leaders of the affected states has to be a measure of their insignificance. And ours.

    Comment by Joe W — March 6, 2015 @ 8:28 am

  40. If the Greens become members of government they are going to face a major gap between activist expectations and their ability to actually deliver policy on a whole slew of issues. Intelligence gathering is just one of them.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — March 6, 2015 @ 8:31 am

  41. If the Greens become members of government they are going to face a major gap between activist expectations and their ability to actually deliver policy on a whole slew of issues.

    Comparing Key to Neville Chamberlain was all the go on Kiwiblog during his first term, thanks to his let’s-not-frighten-the-chooks continuation of Clark era policies.

    Comment by Joe W — March 6, 2015 @ 8:46 am

  42. Little has had plenty of opportunity to say he’d pull out of Five Eyes and he did vote for Nat’s security bill.

    He’s also being very coy about the mass surveillance that occurred under Clark.

    On the other hand he might do the exact opposite if in govt.

    Not sure the unpredictably doesn’t morph into not having a policy they want to articulate public ally.

    Comment by NeilM — March 6, 2015 @ 8:56 am

  43. @Joe W: There’s still a vocal minority on Kiwiblog that like to bitch about National being “Labour-lite”.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — March 6, 2015 @ 10:57 am

  44. @GC I don’t think you’re right about people becoming better educated about spying. My perception is that when I was a kid most people understood that we had signals intelligence facilities at Tangimoana and Whaihopai and what it was for, but as the legacy of WWII and the cold war was much closer they did not have a problem with it. Since the fall of the Berlin wall Gen-x and the following generations have been able to pretend the world is a lovely place and we’re bad if we do things like spying. Not that they’re sure what spying is, but it’s probably something like the Bourne movies.

    I’m just waiting for Hager to notice all the aerials at Waiouru, that’s a whole new expose right there.

    Comment by rsmsingers — March 6, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

  45. I’m just waiting for Hager to notice all the aerials at Waiouru, that’s a whole new expose right there.

    Not really. That’s military digital RF.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 6, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

  46. Since the fall of the Berlin wall Gen-x and the following generations have been able to pretend the world is a lovely place and we’re bad if we do things like spying.

    Another not really. I think most people understand what electronic surveillance entails. I suspect most people would be surprised if we didn’t actively spy on Indonesia for instance, but also expect our agencies to obey the law when it comes to domestic intelligence. Not too much to ask IMO.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 6, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

  47. My perception is that when I was a kid most people understood that we had signals intelligence facilities at Tangimoana and Whaihopai and what it was for, but as the legacy of WWII and the cold war was much closer they did not have a problem with it.

    But ‘what it is for’ has changed. The equivalent would be if when I was growing up the govt had intelligence officers in the post office photographing letters, and recording phone calls.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — March 6, 2015 @ 9:12 pm


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