New spy laws legalising domestic communications interception were narrowly passed in New Zealand yesterday by a vote of 61 to 59 in Parliament.
The Government argued the laws are necessary to clarify the powers of the Government Communications Services Bureau (GCSB), New Zealand's cyber security agency, when it is asked to assist law enforcement agencies such as Police and the Security Intelligence Service.
That clarification was needed because, in a major embarrassment to the Government, surveillance mounted against Mega Upload founder Kim Dotcom in late 2011 and early 2012 at the request of the FBI was subsequently found to be illegal.
Opponents fear the law has done more than just clarify existing rules, however, and has broadened interception capabilities to allow the mass collection of domestic communications metadata and content.
The law's passage through Parliament coincided with Edward Snowden's ongoing disclosures about international communications interception which revealed data collection and mining on an unprecedented scale.
Protests, public meetings and intense lobbying on social media ensued with two key Government-aligned politicians being urged repeatedly to cross the floor of Parliament and vote against the Bill.
Prime Minister John Key said despite "ill-informed" claims, the legislation does not allow wholesale spying on New Zealanders.
"It actually tightens, not widens, the existing regime,'' he said.
However, that is not a view shared by lawyer Rodney Harrison QC, who at a public meeting this week said the Bill not only removes a prohibition on GCSB spying on New Zealanders, it also includes a definition of "infrastructure" that embraces all forms of data systems, including content and that opens the door to broader use of surveillance by security agencies.
In the course of the current debates, Key has refused to answer questions about whether GCSB receives funding from US agencies such as the NSA, saying it was not in the national interest to do so. The Guardian newspaper has reported UK spy agency GCHQ does receive NSA funding.