Edward Snowden reveals tapping of major Australia-New Zealand undersea telecommunications cable

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key denied there had been mass surveillance.New Zealand Prime Minister John Key denied there had been mass surveillance. Photo: Getty

A major undersea telecommunications cable that connects Australia and New Zealand to North America has been tapped to allow the United States National Security Agency and its espionage partners to comprehensively harvest Australian and New Zealand internet data.

Documents published by The Intercept website by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden show that New Zealand’s electronic spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), worked in 2012 and 2013 to implement a mass metadata surveillance system based on covert access to the Southern Cross undersea cable network.

Founded in 1997, Southern Cross owns and operates a Trans-Pacific submarine cable network connecting Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii to the internet backbone on the west coast of the United States. The network was developed to service the rapid growth of Internet traffic across the Pacific. It is owned by Telecom New Zealand with a 50 per cent share, SingTel Optus (Australia’s second-largest telecommunications provider) with 40 per cent and Verizon Business with 10 per cent.

Edward Snowden accused New Zealand's Prime Minister of misleading the public.Edward Snowden accused New Zealand’s Prime Minister of misleading the public. Photo: Reuters

Top secret documents provided by Mr Snowden show that the GCSB, with ongoing cooperation from the US National Security Agency, implemented Phase I of a mass surveillance program code-named “Speargun” at some time in 2012 or early 2013.

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“Speargun” involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment connected to New Zealand’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross Cable, which carries internet traffic between Australia, New Zealand and North America.

Upon completion of the first stage, Speargun moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables. The leaked NSA documents note that the first such metadata probe was scheduled for installation in “mid-2013”. Surveillance probes of this sort are used by NSA and its “5-eyes” partners including the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to tap into high capacity fibre-optic communication cables, enabling them to extract vast flows of data including the dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, as well as the actual content of communications as required.

The latest disclosures from top secret documents leaked by Mr Snowden come in the context of the final stages of New Zealand’s election campaign where New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has been under pressure to explain the extent of GCSB’s surveillance activities. On Sunday Mr Key stridently attacked US journalist Glen Greenwald, who is the author of numerous articles based on Mr Snowden’s materials including Monday’s report published on The Interceptwebsite.

Mr Snowden, in a post for The Intercept, also published on Monday, accused Prime Minster Key of misleading the New Zealand public about GCSB’s role in mass surveillance. “The Prime Minister’s claim to the public, that ‘there is no and there never has been any mass surveillance’, is false,” the former NSA analyst wrote. “The GCSB, whose operations he is responsible for, is directly involved in the untargetted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio, and phone networks.”

Mr Snowden explained that “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 ‘X-Keyscore'”. He further observed that “the GCSB provides mass surveillance data into X-KEYSCORE. They also provide access to the communications of millions of New Zealanders to the NSA at facilities such as the GCSB facility in Waihopai, and the Prime Minister is personally aware of this fact.”

Mr Key responded quickly to the latest disclosures, claiming that “there is not, and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB”.

The New Zealand Prime Minister said he would not discuss the X-Keyscore program, saying “we don’t discuss the specific programmes the GCSB may, or may not use”.

“But the GCSB does not collect mass metadata on New Zealanders, therefore it is clearly not contributing such data to anything or anyone,” Mr Key said.

Fairfax Media has previously reported on the Australian Signals Directorate’s involvement in the X-Keyscore program and the ASD’s cooperation with Singapore’s Ministry of Defence to tap submarine cables in South East Asia.

The Australian Signals Directorate has also acquired sophisticated technology designed to tap high-speed fibre optic data cables including those that connect Australia with Asia and North America.  The huge volume of intelligence now collected by the ASD data has required theconstruction of a new $163.5 million data storage facility at the HMAS Harman naval communications facility near Canberra.

The latest revelations from Mr Snowden’s trove of leaked intelligence documents are likely to fuel debate in Australia about the Commonwealth Government’s controversial proposals for compulsory retention of metadata by telecommunications and internet service providers for access without warrant by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and law enforcement agencies. Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday confirmed the Australian Government’s determination to introduce legislation to mandate the compulsory data retention “later in the year”.

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Independent journalist and funder of We Are Change, a grassroots media outlet.

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