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Government is right to set security monitoring standards says Telecom chief executive Simon Moutter.

“But, whatever they”re asking for, make sure it is economically and technically viable,” he says.

“Some things are difficult to do. Some things are wildly expensive; that’s what you’ve got to keep in perspective.”

Telecom calls for level playing field

Without being drawn into the deeper issues around morals or individual rights, Moutter says ensuring a level playing field between national and global telecommunications entities is one aspect Telecom emphasises in its submissions to government on the proposed GCSB and privacy legislation.

For example, Skype calls which operate across the internet are heavily encrypted.

“We don’t have the ability to unencrypt them; so we don’t want a law that says we should try to do what is technically impossible,” says Moutter.

Potential cost of surveillance

“Equally, we could store all phone call and internet data for five years. But the cost would be unbelievable; so don’t pass a law that asks for that.”

Around the wider challenge of ultrafast broadband rollout around New Zealand, Moutter is keen to have more government-involved discussion. Though Telecom isn’t directly involved in Chorus and other cities’ local fibre companies installations, it has been apparent that the job is more complicated and costly than originally envisaged.

“Players and people are betting billions trying to get this right,” says Moutter.

Ministers Adams, Joyce “get it”

“There are a number of issues and it’s a moving beast that I think the ministers [Amy Adams and Steven Joyce] get that. But what we and other want is more certainty. There are a range of possible answers, but for goodness sake, let’s put a line in the sand. Then we and others will get on with it with confidence and deliver the services that New Zealanders and our businesses desperately want.”

Moutter also thinks the 20-year-old legislation guaranteeing free local telephone calling will one day become irrelevant. Telecom itself is not trying to defend landline calling as it becomes increasingly less and less of its overall business.

Arguably, the illusion of free local calls has altered customer behaviour compared to other countries where local calls have traditionally cost something.

Landlines on way out

In America for example 36 percent of households don’t have a landline. The equivalent in New Zealand is 10 percent, but with local calls falling by 10 percent a year: “In seven to eight years that side will be gone,” he says.

Moutter says the increasing penetration of broadband and mobile changes th telecoms landscape.

“We’re only just scratching the surface of what will happen. But whatever does, we intend to be a major player in providing the services that New Zealanders will demand.”

Convener Laurence Millar and the panel discussing state surveillance at NetHui 2013. From left to right: Laurence Miller, Dr. Paul Buchanan, Ian Apperley, Sir Bruce Ferguson and Michael Wigley.

Legislation proposing to extend the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau is too important to rush through Parliament without more debate. That’s the consensus of the panel discussing state surveillance and the GCSB at NetHui 2013.

Significantly the panel included former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson who told delegates there’s a need for an apolitical, but robust debate about this kind of legislation. Ferguson says it’s not possible for a completely open debate, but some of it could be transparent: “The current bill requires proper research.”

He says there’s a genuine need for intelligence agencies and, generally, New Zealand has the right balance between the right to live freely and he need for security.

Ferguson says he didn’t agree with the prime minister’s appointment of the new GCSB head. He says it should be an independent appointment, not an old school friend of John Key’s. He says that, previously, for the GCSB to spy on a New Zealander, the director needed a warrant from the head of police or the SIS.

The panel also included cloud consultant Ian Apperley, solicitor Michael Wigley and security expert Paul Buchanan.

Fig leaf

Buchanan won applause from the audience when he described terrorism as “a fig leaf used by the intelligence industry to legitimise what they do”. He says the reality is that 90 percent of their work involves spying on other states and agencies. And anyway, “with Prism and all the other intelligence at their disposal, the US government couldn’t stop the Boston bombings”.

He also says terrorism is a terrible thing, but it isn’t a threat to any state or democracy. Buchanan thinks fighting terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter, not a war, and dealt with by Police.

Not just governments

Apperley describes targeted spying is “a necessary evil”, but says wholesale surveillance of a population is unacceptable. However, it pointed out these days it isn’t just government keeping an eye on the population, big corporations and rogue actors like hackers are watching too. He says privacy becomes an individual’s responsibility and it isn’t something that can be left to ISPs.

As a cloud consultant, Apperley would like New Zealand to become the “Switzerland of the south”, a place people everywhere could trust to look after information. He says this is incompatible with the connection to the five eyes surveillance program.

Legal objection

Prime minister John Key says the NZ Law Society’s criticism of the GCSB bill is completely wrong. This annoys Michael Wigley who says: “Well Mr Key, you know best, we’re just lawyers with a concern for civil liberties, the rule of law, due process, we’ve studied this for years, but you’re the boss”.

Wigley is concerned about the serious risk of extra-judicial overreach and says the idea that the existing GCSB law is unclear is patently false. He says: “Any second year law student could understand the law.”

Clare Curran, Labour communications spokesperson
Clare Curran, Labour communications spokesperson

Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran wants the New Zealand government to allow more time for submissions on the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation bill and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) bill.

She says the government is pushing the bills through parliament the in a hurry. Submissions are due on Thursday, June 13.

Curran says New Zealanders need more time to debate the bills in the light of recent revelations about the US government Prism surveillance programme.  She says the new bills will give the GCSB and other agencies “more powers to undertake surveillance on NZ citizens through all forms of communications as a matter of course.”

“(PM) John Key must front the public (as Barack Obama is doing in the US and David Cameron is being pushed to do in the UK) to tell New Zealanders whether information about their communications is routinely able to be accessed by the GSCB now, and just exactly what extra powers they will have under the new laws which will impact on the privacy and freedoms of us all,” she said.

Curran says parliament is dealing with one of the bills behind closed doors with no public discussion: “This is simply intolerable in a democracy where New Zealanders have ultimate power over the way they are governed.”

Mixed signals from New Zealand government on telecommunications security.

You have to ask yourself what principles are behind the New Zealand government’s telecommunications security strategy.

On the one hand the government has a relaxed attitude towards carriers allowing Huawei to build key parts of their infrastructure. On the other hand it introduced the Telecommunications  (Interception Capability and Security) Bill to Parliament this week.

Security fears mean Huawei is shut out of Australia and the United States. Yet New Zealand’s centre right government is happy for the telecommunications equipment giant to build and finance networks here.

Far-reaching intercept bill

Meanwhile the bill intended to replace the earlier Telecommunications  (Interception Capability) Act 2004 officially takes government intelligence intrusion into the telco sector further than any of our strategic allies. At least, as far as they publicly acknowledge.

The new bill gives New Zealand spies the power to intercept communications in the name of national security. The first part is about telecommunications company obligations while the second part means telecommunications companies will need to work with the Government Communications Security Bureau on security issues and matters that could affect the economy.

Thomas Beagle of the digital civil liberties lobby group Tech Liberty points out this could give the GCSB control over the design and operation of communications networks run in New Zealand. It also gives the GCSB the power to stop service providers reselling overseas services that make it difficult for our security services to spy on communications,

As Beagle points out, it gives spies wide and open-ended powers. And it could make life considerably harder for network operators.

Economically counterproductive

One interesting aspect of the bill is that it could affect the way companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple do business in New Zealand. It would be economically counterproductive if companies decided to offer New Zealand customers a lower level of service than those overseas to comply with the law. It could also have implications for future investment in telecommunications networks.

Is there a disconnect here with the New Zealand government’s relaxed attitude towards Huawei?

Maybe not, the most likely explanation is that the government addresses each telecommunications policy decision afresh and makes on-the-fly decisions based on immediate considerations and not have an overriding philosophy. The results must sometimes look odd to outside observers.