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The ThinThread of GCSB surveillance

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, May 25th, 2013 - 11 comments
Categories: copyright, democracy under attack, greens, labour, Spying, telecommunications, us politics - Tags:

William Binney, a whistle blower from the US NSA (National Security Agency) claims that a surveillance device, Thin Thread was sent to spy agencies in places like NZ, Canada,, Australia, Germany and the UK in 2000-2001 for testing.  According to author Tim Shorrock, ThinThread monitors the meta data of phone, internet and email communications, at first masking the identities of the participants in the communications.  It only reveals these identities when the spies decide they are concerned enough to apply for a warrant.

In this morning’s NZ Herald, David Fisher reports,

Mr Shorrock said the “ThinThread prototype” was installed at two NSA listening posts in late 2000 and at Fort Meade where the NSA is based.

“In addition, several allied foreign intelligence agencies were given the program to conduct lawful surveillance in their own corners of the world. Those recipients included Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.”

The “lawful” aspect was due to the software’s ability to mask the identities of those whose information was being intercepted – a technical work around of the legal barrier which prohibits New Zealand and the US from spying on its own citizens.

Mr Shorrock said ThinThread operated in three phases. It began by intercepting call, email and internet traffic on a network and automatically assessing it for interest. The scale of the traffic was such that it narrowed down targets of interest by focusing on patterns of information rather than the content of the information.

This news has resulted in the Labour and Green parties repeating their calls for an inquiry int the activities of the GCSB.

Greens’ co-leader Russel Norman said the Prime Minister and GCSB needed to explain to the public whether it was spied on by ThinThread.

“It reinforces why there is a different set of rules for the GCSB – they are integrated into this global spy network,” he said.

Another NZ Herald article this morning, provides more details on the possibilities of a surveillance programme like ThinThread. ThinThread monitors meta data, “information about information”.  Nicky Hager says that, given modern technologies can monitor huge amounts of data, focusing on meta data is more manageable.

In fact, metadata describes the trails of digital footprints created by anyone in the modern world. It describes all the phone calls and text messages ever sent or made from a phone. It is every email contact point, geographical location recorded, banking transaction, bill paid or medical record transferred. Each of those will have multiple points of data and can be overlaid on dozens, hundreds or thousands of others to find links and patterns.

The result is a 3D model of a life.

ThinThread worked on metadata, creating graphs which described the huge pool of data which it analysed.

“Intelligence veteran”, whistle blower William Binney,

… described how he created in the 1980s a five-nation intelligence network which sounded identical to the Echelon system to which New Zealand belongs. “The whole idea was to share everything,” he said.It would have been the information pool to which the GCSB surrendered Kim Dotcom’s details. Court records show the bureau passed “selector” information to the Echelon/Five Eyes network featuring phone numbers, IP numbers and email addresses.

Mr Hager: “What is selector data? It is a keyword someone can search with. When you pass selector data, you are giving them a target list.”

And all the more reason why John Key’s recent and planned legislation is a step in the wrong direction, failing to provide the necessary safe guards and oversight to ensure information about Kiwi citizens is not being passed on to foreign agencies.  This could include information about New Zealanders who are considered to be threats to the “economic security” of the US government. A few days ago the NZ Herald reported,

New legislation which was designed to clarify the intelligence agency’s role was passed under urgency earlier this month.

Green Party leader Russel Norman said the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill should be put on hold until an independent inquiry could be held into the agency’s spying on New Zealanders.

“A law change should be the last step in the process, not the first.

11 comments on “The ThinThread of GCSB surveillance ”

  1. aerobubble 1

    The governor general headed the GCSB part of time this alledged illegality was taking place and so any law he signs legalizing said activities is unconscionable. Even the GG is not above the Law.

    • Nordy 1.1

      The fact that the GG was previously head of GCSB is not in itself especially relevant to the powers of the GG. Have a read up on the concept of the ‘reserve powers’ of the GG and the various constitutional arguments about their actual importance and what may or may not happen (depending on who you believe). It is a fascinating discussion on the notion of convention which is such a critical part of our (largely unwritten) constitutional arrangments.

      What I would suggest is more relevant is the notion of the ‘thin thread’ of our democaracy that can be played with by politicians (such as NACT) at their will, given the nature of convention and how important it is that the politicians understand and observe it for it to actually work. Despite the complaints and criticism of opposition parties NACT can simply continue to act unilaterally as the other important check on a govt, the 4th estate, more often than not either doesn’t understand what is going on, is cheering from the back pocket of the politicians, or is looking elsewhere for the latest ‘entertainment’ story.

      This particularly relates to the oversite of the ‘intelligence community’ (another one of those amusing oxymorons) and the power and authority given to politicians who are expected/supposed to exercise oversite in the best interests of NZ. Recent events confirm this to be myth.

  2. Anne 2

    Mr Shorrock said the “ThinThread prototype” was installed at two NSA listening posts in late 2000 and at Fort Meade where the NSA is based.

    “In addition, several allied foreign intelligence agencies were given the program to conduct lawful surveillance in their own corners of the world…

    Now that’s interesting. The ‘prototype’ was invented prior to 9/11 so it wasn’t a response to the September attacks. It’s possible the programme wasn’t given to the “Five Eye” nations until after Sept.01 – using the attack as justification. But what justification is there now? Of course it’s easy to manufacture a security emergency and then use it to invade another region or country. Iraq anyone?

  3. Murray Olsen 3

    The GCSB seems to exist solely to work for Washington. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that the foreign powers we open our windows to have ever given us anything in return. In the Rainbow Warrior French military attack on us, there is evidence they kept stuff from us. This is the same France on whose behalf the SIS and Helen Clark kept Ahmed Zouai locked up.
    Dismantle the lot. They’re worse than useless.

  4. This program made it possible to “correlate data from financial transactions, travel records, Web searches, GPS equipment, and any other ‘attributes’ that an analyst might find useful,” and “could chart relationships among people in real time.” Unlike the NSA’s existing centralized data processing systems, ThinThread was able to identify useful or useless data as it was collected, reducing the overload problem. However, though it targeted foreign communications, ThinThread also intercepted those of Americans, and “continued documenting signals when a trail crossed into the US.” Binney incorporated measures to protect privacy, but NSA lawyers still considered the program too invasive, according to a 2011 article by Jane Mayer based on interviews with Binney and another NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake.

    http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=thinthread_1

  5. hoom 5

    Interesting.
    “A law change should be the last step in the process, not the first.”

    In this context indeed the law change is the last step.
    First steps were making this stuff, putting it in place & using it.
    Law change is ‘oh shit the law doesn’t fit what we are doing’.
    Rewriting this sort of software/tech retrospectively to allow for NZ specific laws (even if they wanted to) would be ‘unworkable’ so our law gets changed.

    Attack on Democracy? Attack on the interests of NZ Citizens? Who, National? Pffffffft nah lol says the newspapers: that only applies to making people buy lightbulbs that would cut their power bill.

  6. ghostwhowalksnz 6

    Use something called TOR, that will anonymise your online journey

    It runs in Firefox and bounces it around the world

  7. KJT 7

    http://kjt-kt.blogspot.co.nz/2010/06/operation-mincemeat-and-spycraft-in.html

    “Operation mincemeat is a good amusing story, but in the light of current revelations about SIS it is a salutary reminder about the nuttiness of the spy and counter spy silliness of so called intelligence agencies”.

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/05/10/100510crat_atlarge_gladwell?currentPage=all

    Nuttiness, amorality and incompetence, masked by secrecy, is a common thread whenever the world of the spooks is exposed to daylight.

    Like our unnecessarily onerous and expensive, counter terrorist border controls, while the real threat, bio-security, is ignored and starved of funding.

    We don’t need them.

  8. prism 8


    An interesting and instructive presentation on how things are in state security without borders these days.

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