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New Zealand secretly built spying program, report says

The New Zealand government constructed a mass surveillance program as part of the 'Five Eyes' international data-sharing network, despite public denial of the surveillance, says Edward Snowden.

new-zealand-prime-minister-john-key.jpg
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is under fire for allegedly lying about government Internet surveillance. Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

New Zealand is the next target of newly leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Government Communications Security Bureau of New Zealand constructed a mass Internet metadata surveillance system in 2012 and 2013, following new laws passed by its parliament, but the country lied to its citizens about the program's existence, Snowden said in a column published Sunday at The Intercept.

"If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched," said Snowden. "At the NSA, I routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in my work with a mass surveillance tool we share with GCSB, called XKEYSCORE."

XKEYSCORE is used by the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, a group also known as the "Five Eyes" countries, to monitor Internet traffic and share gathered intelligence.

While the GCSB said on Sunday, "We don't comment on matters that may or may not be operational," Prime Minister John Key denied the allegations on Monday morning. He said that the initiative, code-named Speargun, was replaced by another one. This one, called Cortex, focused on what Key said was "mass cyber protection," The Intercept reported.

However, Key's response has been criticized because Cortex doesn't disprove the existence of Speargun.

"To function, the Cortex project must have some degree of access to New Zealand's Internet cables," the Intercept said.

Snowden explained that NSA analysts like himself could opt out of running searches on Five Eyes countries with a checkbox called the Five Eyes Defeat.

"[W]hy do analysts have a checkbox on a top secret system that hides the results of mass surveillance in New Zealand if there is no mass surveillance in New Zealand?" he asked.

A news story in The Intercept that ran alongside Snowden's Sunday column said that top secret documents provided by Snowden proved that the GCSB worked with the NSA to build Speargun "at some point in 2012 or early 2013."

"Speargun involved the covert installation of 'cable access' equipment," which The Intercept claimed refers to surveillance of transmissions on the Southern Cross cable. Most Internet traffic between New Zealand and the rest of the world crosses that cable.

"[M]ass collection from it would mark the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades," The Intercept said.

Metadata probes of the type that the NSA often uses tapped the cable in 2013 and extracted "dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, and the like," the report said.

The NSA declined to comment to The Intercept.

The story comes days before New Zealand's national election on September 20, and at a time when the Key administration has seen one top minister resign amid a scandal for declassifying government documents for political attack purposes and Key officials' ties to a right-wing blogger. The revelations of the scandal led to Kim Dotcom funding an anti-Internet surveillance political party that has allied with the left-wing Mana Party, and the coalition is predicted to win several seats.