Why spying for another country matters

This morning the New Zealand Herald in conjunction with Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Nicky Hager have alleged that the GCSB (Government Communications and Security Bureau) has been spying on countries in the Pacific. The spying is allegedly not just for our benefit, we are spying on these countries on the behalf of the United States and other members of the Five Eyes security alliance.

The fact that the GCSB is spying on foreigners is not surprising. What is surprising is that we are spying on countries we purport to act as paternalistic guardians for, whose support we courted for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, who are in theory our good friends and allies. The responses have been disappointing, along the lines of ‘of course we spy on them’ and ‘so what, big deal’. What is also surprising and distressing is that New Zealand appears not to have carried out surveillance for its own purposes, we have been asked to spy by the United States and we have duly done as we are told.

Putting to one side the issues of national sovereignty and an independent foreign policy, spying on anyone, but especially allies on behalf of other allies, is surreal and incredibly strange. One can argue about the motivations of the United States in seeking New Zealand assistance, but we are asked to do something fundamentally dishonest and morally wrong to an ally, and the New Zealand security establishment just went along with it.

It then becomes a matter of where do we draw the line? The events of the last few years showed that the GCSB illegally spied on a German national who was a New Zealand resident. If the United States asked the GCSB to spy for them in other locales, or ask the SIS (Security Intelligence Service) to spy on New Zealanders of interest to the United States here at home, when does our government say no? We don’t know that due to lacklustre and extremely narrow checks of accountability on our security services.

No one wants to appear to be inflating an issue as serious as the revelations of this morning, but it becomes a question of where and when does the spying stop?