New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has refused to rule out whether the country's electronic spy agency has carried out mass surveillance on New Zealanders in the Pacific.
"I'm not going to comment on where we have particular targets, except to say that where we go and collect information, there's always a very good reason for that," Key told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report on March 9.
The comments come after reports based on documents leaked by former United States National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden suggested that New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) had collected the entire email, phone, and social media communications from the country's closest neighbours in the Pacific, and shared that information with the NSA.
The communications from nearly two dozen countries were reportedly harvested and shared with the NSA, helping to flesh out that agency's global spying agenda.
The GCSB was focusing on what is referred to as "full-take" collection, according to the reports, allowing the NSA to use its XKeyscore search engine to trawl communications content and metadata for intelligence.
The revelations were followed by comments from former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson suggesting that mass surveillance of New Zealanders in the Pacific has been taking place.
Referring to the passage of amendments in 2013 to the legislation under which the GCSB operates, Ferguson told Radio New Zealand that the Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Bill "is exactly what it is; structured to allow for that there will, at time to time, be inadvertent collection, mass collection of these things, information".
"But the Act specifies that they cannot then use that information against NZ, unless they have specific reasons to do so," he added.
When asked whether Ferguson's comments should be considered a confirmation of the GCSB's reported surveillance activities, according to the Snowden documents, Key merely questioned the former GCSB director's meaning of the term "mass".
"I can't tell you what's in Bruce Ferguson's head and what he means by that," said Key. "He said 'sort of mass', and what does he mean by that?
"But what I can tell you is what I know, and what I know is that there is a variety of reasons why we collect information, we have a variety of techniques in doing that, the law is very clear about what it allows us to do when it comes to New Zealanders, and all the advice I've had is we are 100 percent compliant with the [law]," he said.
Key's refusal to confirm or deny the spy agency's mass collection of data from New Zealanders in the Pacific region follows his promise to resign if mass surveillance had taken place.
Key also said that he believes New Zealanders do not legally have the right to know whether their mobile text messages, phone calls, and personal data have been collected by the spy agency.
"I think the answer to that is no ... I'd have to go and check the law, but I'm pretty sure they [New Zealanders] are not told that," he said. "But it depends on the circumstances."