Spying - everybody's doin' it, doin' it

We're learning this week just how common it is for countries to be spying on each other. Sir Geoffrey Palmer hinted last year that those in high power are quite aware of this

Spies. The characters of action films are becoming all too real these days. We are learning about metadata and secret surveillance from a whistle blowing/treasonous (pick your side) former NSA contractor and even Peter Dunne. And now the Guardian keeps reporting how the US has been spying on its allies, as well as the "evil-doers".

It's the latter story that reminded me of an interview we did with Sir Geoffrey Palmer on Q+A last year.

The stories have surfaced this week, via Edward Snowden, that US intelligences services are spying on 38 embassies and missions in America, including the EU's offices in New York and Washington DC. Not only are America's adversaries being spied on - the French, Germans, Mexicans, Indians and more are being watched.

American spies tap them, bug their electronic devices and intercept electronic transmissions. They wanted to know their positions on trade deals, who was falling out with whom and the like. With friends like these...

How has America reacted to being caught out? President Barack Obama has said it's OK, because everyone's doing it.

"We should stipulate that every intelligence service – not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there's an intelligence service … here's one thing that they're going to be doing: they're going to be trying to understand the world better and what's going on in world capitals... If that weren't the case, then there'd be no use for an intelligence service."

"And I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That's how intelligence services operate."

I was initially shocked that all this could be happening... and that it would come to light. But then I wondered if we aren't being a little naive.

Who was it who said there aren't any permanent friends, just permanent interests? If knowledge is power, then of course governments will be trying to get the intelligence edge on others.

Palmer said on Q+A that he would expect leading politicians and diplomats to be targets of spying; it seemed quite a dramatic statement at the time that got little attention. Again, maybe it's naive to have thought otherwise, but Palmer simply assumed that a conversation between John Key and Bill English would be listened in on by "foreign people". And that was why English may have approved hushing up GSCB's involvement in the Dotcom case without talking to Key. Greg Boyed asked:

[English] was in the midst of it. He signed this off. Should he have been tougher? Should he have asked more questions and been more open with his Prime Minister?
GEOFFREY  Well, the difficulty is that if Mr English telephoned Mr Key overseas to talk to him about this the communication could be intercepted by foreign people, so he probably didn’t want to do that. I mean, one of the things the GCSB advises you about are the problems of intercepted government communications, and that’s one of the prime reasons they exist, to prevent the government information systems being invaded or corrupted. And indeed I had a very interesting interview with the GCSB before I did this inquiry in New York about Israel and Turkey. They warned me of how my cellphone could be intercepted. They gave me a little package to put it in so no one could find out where I was. They provide a great deal of advice which is very helpful to government ministers and to government officials about how to protect New Zealand security interests and stop our secrets getting into the hands of other people.
GREG            So what you’re saying is that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that an email or a phone call or whatever between Bill English and John Key when he was overseas could have been intercepted, they could have been spied on.
GEOFFREY  Absolutely. I mean, email is an open communication. I mean, anyone can intercept those.

So it seems the GCSB were aware that spying is commonplace and have been taking steps to help our leaders avoid exposure. Presumably for all the outrage out of Germany and France, they must have known the same thing. But I wonder if Sir Geoffrey knew those "foreign people" intercepting his and English's calls might well have been our allies?