US surveillance row washes up on Pacific allies' shores

CANBERRA/WELLINGTON Sun Jun 9, 2013 3:05pm IST

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland. REUTERS/NSA/Handout via Reuters

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Credit: Reuters/NSA/Handout via Reuters

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CANBERRA/WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Unease over a clandestine U.S. data collection programme has rippled across the Pacific to two of Washington's major allies, Australia and New Zealand, raising concerns about whether they have cooperated with secret electronic data mining.

Both Canberra and Wellington share intelligence with the United States, as well as Britain and Canada. But both Pacific neighbours now face awkward questions about a U.S. digital surveillance programme that Washington says is aimed primarily at foreigners.

In Australia, the conservative opposition said it was "very troubled" by America's so-called PRISM programme, which newspaper reports say is a top-secret authorisation for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to extract personal data from the computers of major Internet firms.

The opposition, poised to win September elections, said it was concerned that data stored by Australians in the computer servers of U.S. Internet giants like Facebook (FB.O) and Google (GOOG.O) could be accessed by the NSA, echoing fears voiced in Europe last week over the reach of U.S. digital surveillance in the age of cloud computing.

Australia's influential Greens party called on the government to clarify whether Canberra's own intelligence agencies had access to the NSA-gathered data, which according to Britain's Guardian newspaper included search history, emails, file transfers and live chats.

"We'll examine carefully any implications in what has emerged for the security and privacy of Australians," Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in a television interview on Sunday, when asked whether Canberra had cooperated with Washington's secret initiative.

Both countries are members of the so-called 'five eyes' collective of major Western powers collecting and sharing signals intelligence, set up in the post-war 1940s.

DOTCOM ACCUSATION

In New Zealand, Internet file-sharing tycoon Kim Dotcom, who is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of online piracy, took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight what he alleged was the role of NSA surveillance in his own case, and the cooperation of New Zealand's spy agency.

"The New Zealand GCSB spy agency was used to spy on my family because all surveillance was available to American agencies in real time," he tweeted, referring to the Government Communications and Security Bureau.

"My case against the spy agency in New Zealand will show the degree of cooperation with the NSA."

A New Zealand government spokeswoman declined to comment on Sunday when asked if the GCSB cooperated with the NSA programme.

"We do not comment on security and intelligence matters. New Zealand's intelligence agencies are subject to an oversight regime, which we are looking to strengthen ..."

A New Zealand watchdog in September last year found that the GCSB had illegally spied on Dotcom, founder of file-sharing site Megaupload, intercepting his personal communications ahead of a raid on his home in early 2012 by New Zealand police, who acted on a request from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. That raid was also ruled to have been invalid.

Australia's spy and law-enforcement agencies want telecoms firms and Internet service providers to continuously collect and store personal data to boost anti-terrorism and crime-fighting capabilities - a controversial initiative that one government source said would be even more difficult to push through now, after news of the secret U.S. surveillance of Internet firms.

The underpinning legislation has been the subject of almost three years of heated closed-door negotiations with companies most affected and last year was referred to a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee after drawing "big brother"-styled criticism from lawmakers and rights libertarians.

Australia's government, in developing the legislation, has drawn on similar laws used in Europe since 2006, but where it has also run into legal difficulties in some EU member countries like Germany, where it was judged unconstitutional.

"I'm not sure what the legislative backing for events in the U.S. has been. We have tried here to do ours as transparently as possible, with all the headaches that brings. This will make that worse," a government source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. (Writing by Mark Bendeich in Sydney; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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