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The surveillance state online

Written By: - Date published: 2:06 pm, February 25th, 2014 - 8 comments
Categories: accountability, blogs, internet, spin, Spying - Tags:

The Edward Snowden leaks have provided extensive information about how the US, NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance uses the internet for widespread surveillance. The NSA dominates the “5 eyes” network that includes NZ’s GCSB and the UK equivalent, the GCHQ. Some of these techniques could also be used by NZ’s domestic surveillance agency, the SIS, or maybe even the police.

Recent leaks and articles about them have highlighted some of the strategies used.  There’s a lot to digest, but, it is important to consider, if and/how these techniques are used politically for surveillance of New Zealanders – and if they are used in ways that are politically sensitive.

Selwyn Manning usefully explains how the “Two Hops” strategy is used to work around regulations requiring warrants to spy on selected people digitally.  He cites this Guardian article by Glenn Greenwald, published in June 2013 for this explanation:

One function of this internet record collection is what is commonly referred to as “data mining”, and which the NSA calls “contact chaining”. The agency “analyzed networks with two degrees of separation (two hops) from the target”, the report says. In other words, the NSA studied the online records of people who communicated with people who communicated with targeted individuals.

Manning explains how this would work in the NZ context, in relation to the surveillance of Keith Locke, without the GCSB or SIS needing a PM-issued warrant.

Basically, Keith, as a MP, was corresponding with a person from Sri Lanka, a person from the northern Tamil area who had arrived in New Zealand after seeking asylum and a place of refuge far away from the tyranny dished out by Sri Lanka’s government.

That person, it appears was under surveillance. And it is understood the SIS had obtained a warrant to surveil that person through the normal channels i.e.; the warrant was signed ultimately by Helen Clark as the prime minister at the time of the operation.

Under the two hops protocol New Zealand’s security agencies placed the target under direct surveillance, and also surveilled, and filed data originating from, those who were in communication with the target.

The agencies then looked for spatial patterns (in a data sense) among the communications of the people and groups that those, like Keith Locke, were also in contact with.

So, in a human-intel sense, it appears two hops has been used in New Zealand at least since September 11 2001, and perhaps earlier.

Today on the new online news site Intercept, Glenn Greenwald summarises and explains several related documents leaked by Edward Snowden.  Some of these techniques of manipulation and online politicking (“online covert operations”) have been used by the UK agency, GCHQ.  It is not known if New Zealanders, or NZ websites are the target of such strategies. Greenwald writes,

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”(note: this document may take a couple of minutes to appear at the link).

Greenwald outlines some of the tactics used:

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. Here is one illustrative list of tactics from the latest GCHQ document we’re publishing today:


The attempt to jointly smear Kim Dotcom and Winston Peters comes to mind with these kinds of tactics, especially as we still don’t know how the information of Peters’ 3 visits to the Dotcom mansion was obtained.  I posted about the well known (originally CIA) ploy of plausible deniability, that would enable key, and any state surveillance agencies (including the police) to distance themselves from the published material.

There is a lot of material to digest here. It is worrying that there are so many ways of working around the legal checks and balances; requirements that are supposed to keep a check on surveillance and covert actions by state agencies.  It is wise to be alert to the kind of techniques that political opponents can use online.

[Update Andrea Vance on NZ spy tactics]

Vance reports that Snowden’s leaks show that GCSB spies were schooled in the tactics of  “covert operations online”:

Kiwi spies were briefed on setting honey traps and internet “dirty tricks” to “control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp” online discourse, documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal.

She also quotes Greenwald on the use of these techniques against political opponents within 5 eyes’ countries:

Greenwald called the tactics “extremist” and pointed out they do not just target hostile nations or spy agencies, terrorists or nation security threats,  but “people suspected (but not charged or convicted) or ordinary crimes orthose who use online protest activity for political ends”.

He added: “it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes.”

8 comments on “The surveillance state online”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    Very very important details you cover here, karol.

    NB you might want to edit the following.

    about how the US, NSA (National Insurance Agency)

  2. Tracey 2

    great stuff karol. some good reading there.

    does anyone believe the nsa hasnt been spying on tpp negotiators and govts hangers on? (other than wayne mapp and he doesnt really believe they dont)

    • One Anonymous Bloke 2.1

      The Masters of Cyberspace can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. No really. Why won’t you believe me?

  3. Well, Hillary Clinton said it: We’re in an information war and we are losing!

  4. Whatever next 4

    I may be bleating on, but how does this not result in Mc Carthyism?
    “…. those who use on line protest for political ends”

    • karol 4.1

      The extent of the surveillance state is very worrying – and yes, it could result in something like McCarthyism – but often less obvious as to how people’s right to protest is being undermined.

  5. ak 5

    Any other politically-active person here hearing loud alarm bells from Andrea Vance’s piece, and relating it to events in their personal life of late – not to mention discourse on the Standard of late? Whatever it takes, eh Slipper.

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