The GCSB Bill

The GCSB Bill

What You Need To Know

What is the GCSB?

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is, amongst other things, New Zealand’s external spy service. The intelligence agency was set up by then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in 1977. It was tasked with keeping government communications and computers secure, and spying on the communications of other governments and security threats. New Zealand’s other spy agency, the Security Intelligence Service, has tended to collect foreign and domestic intelligence. The GCSB Bill is set to redefine the laws that guide the GCSB, principally by allowing it to spy on New Zealanders.

Why is it in the news?

The GCSB Bill has been brought into the spotlight following a series of government mishaps, which led to the amendment of the bill. The amended bill has passed its second reading in Parliament, with 61 votes for and 59 against. As Critic went to print, the bill was in the Committee stage. However, due to the Opposition’s delaying tactics and an urgent debate regarding the Fonterra contamination scare, this process is expected to take a week longer.

What is it all about?

In 2007, an $8 million police and SIS investigation and raid of activists in the Ureweras generated questions about the proper role of New Zealand’s spy agencies. In 2012 John Key revealed that the GCSB had illegally spied on MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom during a police investigation that resulted in the arrest of Dotcom and his business associates by some 76 police officers. The spying operation was illegal because German-born Dotcom had been a New Zealand resident since 2010. The law then prohibited, and still prohibits, spying on New Zealand residents.

In response, the government commissioned a review of the GCSB’s compliance with legislation, internal processes and systems by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge. In a political scandal, the Kitteridge Report was leaked to the media in April this year. It revealed that Ian Fletcher, the head of the GCSB (and childhood friend of the Prime Minister), had lied about illegally spying on New Zealanders. The report stated that the GCSB may have illegally spied on 88 New Zealanders over a 10-year period. An investigation by retired public servant David Henry, the so-called “Henry Inquiry,” then attempted to find the source of this leak.

On May 8, John Key instigated the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill. The bill would grant the GCSB the power to assist other National Security branches such as the New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand Police, and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.

Simply put, the bill would allow the GCSB to spy on any New Zealand citizen with the permission of the head of the GCSB (which would be Key). This would mean, for example, that spying on Kim Dotcom would have been legal.

Why should we care?

The GCSB bill could remove layers of privacy and protection for citizens. But what does it matter if you have nothing to hide? The bill would allow the government to have access to all sorts of information. It would grant access to Internet search history – allowing them to view your favourite porn sites, searches on how to grow cannabis, and the ability to read personal emails and track phone calls and text messages, not to mention plenty of less obvious forms of surveillance.

Otago Professor of Computer Security Hank Wolfe warned Critic that what one might think is innocent information can be trawled, and the GCSB “can go back to it in five years. They can accumulate information on anyone.”

This all raises the question of balance between privacy and security. It is important for a country to maintain national security, but it is debatable whether the Government’s ability to review one’s choice of Internet porn is such a huge threat to the nation.


The Prime Minister has declared that New Zealand faces the same security threats as any other nation. He has stated that New Zealanders have trained in Yemeni terrorist camps, and that attacks like the Boston bombing could occur on New Zealand territory at any time. He therefore implies that having access to citizens’ private information could prevent terrorist activity.

Dr. Wolfe believes Key is using scare tactics. “There is no reason to institute such an oppressive law,” Wolfe claims. “New Zealand is not at risk.” Foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson agrees that “this is a sales job on a very controversial piece of legislation.”

The bill has been criticised for being open to wide interpretation and flagrant abuse. In a media release dated 6 August 2013 by the New Zealand Law Society, Austin Forbes QC stated that “the Law Society is not convinced that the proposed wording of the principles provides adequate or effective safeguards.” Key has also been criticised for the pace at which the bill has been brought through Parliament, with little time being set aside for debate.

Labur Party leader David Shearer has attempted to slow the process further by proposing a supplementary order paper during the committee stage of the GCSB bill. This would allow for more input from other Parliamentarians. However, it is unlikely the paper will be accepted.

Dr. Wolfe explained that with the aid of GPS on smart phones and keypad sensors, extraordinary amounts of information about large numbers of people can be accumulated and browsed. Alarmingly, once a phone is bugged, the conversations around a cellphone, whether calling someone or not, can be recorded through these technologies. Keypad strokes can also be recorded. “It’s [total surveillance],” stated Wolfe, “what the communists did, and we criticised them for that.”

Governments spying on each other

Former Revenue Minister Peter Dunne has voted for the GCSB Bill, even though the full contents of Dunne’s email exchanges with Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance were made available to the Henry Inquiry against his wishes. David Shearer has declared that Dunne should withdraw his support for the bill because the government had accessed his emails without his permission. However, Dunne looks likely to provide the government with the single extra vote it needs to pass the bill.


On July 27 2013, thousands of people took part in demonstrations organised by the group “Stop the GCSB,” whose supporters include New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond. Protestors have also waited outside Dunne’s home at unsavoury hours of the day, “to give him a taste of what it feels like to have your privacy intruded on,” according to one protestor. The protestors and other critics of the bill have alleged that empowering spy agencies to collect vast amounts of data on New Zealand citizens has the potential to turn the country into a police state.

Ulterior motives

Professor Paul Roth of the Otago Law School specialises in intellectual property. He believes that the GCSB Bill could be a case of New Zealand trying to “keep the giants happy” and gain political capital with large powers like the United States.

“We have to stand back and realise the position of New Zealand in the world,” Roth told Critic. “The issue is that New Zealand is a very small, weak country.” New Zealand already operates part of the international ECHELON spying network from its Waihopai base as part of the “Five Eyes” agreement with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The arrest of Kim Dotcom in 2012 also had foreign links, having been initiated by a request from a US federal prosecutor.

Due to delaying tactics employed by opposition parties in Parliament, the bill is unlikely to be passed for at least another two weeks. In the meantime, opponents of the bill are hoping that massive public opposition will prevent the GCSB from being empowered to spy on New Zealand citizens. Dr. Wolfe believes urgent action is required to stop the bill becoming law. “In 1984 New Zealand stood up for what they believed in. We need to stand up again.”
This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2013.
Posted 2:29pm Sunday 11th August 2013 by Bella Macdonald and Jack Montgomerie.