New Zealand rights group blasts new law extending surveillance powers

WELLINGTON Thu Aug 22, 2013 3:48am EDT

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key delivers a speech during a commemorative ceremony of the 60th anniversary of Ceasefire Agreement and U.N. forces' Participation in the Korean War, at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key delivers a speech during a commemorative ceremony of the 60th anniversary of Ceasefire Agreement and U.N. forces' Participation in the Korean War, at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul July 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A New Zealand civil liberties group denounced a new law permitting wider surveillance of citizens on Thursday, saying authorities were "buying into" the monitoring exposed by fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Media were less critical of the legislation, passed by two votes in parliament on Wednesday after a heated debate, but said Prime Minister John Key's minority government had misjudged public opposition to the measure.

The legislation authorizes the involvement of its foreign intelligence department, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), in the work of domestic agencies, such as the Security Intelligence Service and the police.

The government said its monitoring, previously confined to foreign targets, was aimed at terrorism and organized crime.

Key, speaking on Radio Live, said it was easy for the opposition "to create either alarm or concern or misconceptions".

"...It is about keeping every New Zealander safe, and in the end that is the dilemma you have when you're in my job," he said. "Eventually, the buck stops with me in terms of providing the best information to protect New Zealanders."

But the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties blasted the legislation as an unacceptable intrusion.

"The new law enables mass surveillance on New Zealanders, and that's not acceptable in a modern democratic society," council spokesman Thomas Beagle said.

"We seem to be buying into this 'surveillance society' which has been exposed by Snowden, the U.S., and the UK. I think we're on the wrong side of history on this one."

The New Zealand Privacy Commissioner and New Zealand Law Society had criticized the bill in the run-up to the vote.

The GCSB shares data with the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain under what is called the "Five Eyes" Partnership.

The amendments to New Zealand law predate the Snowden revelations, but have stirred concerns about the reach and security of spying and data collection.

Western spy agencies are facing scrutiny after Snowden exposed widespread electronic eavesdropping by the United States. Wanted by the United States, he has been granted temporary asylum by Russia.

The New Zealand Listener weekly said the government was right to ignore the "hysterical opposition" to the measure, but its narrow margin in the vote showed it had misunderstood public opinion.

"There is no doubt the government mishandled the debate," it said in an editorial. "It underestimated, too, the inherent mistrust the community has in government agencies, and therefore the public's willingness to believe that their rights were probably being eroded."

The government move was in response to an inquiry last year which found the GCSB acted unlawfully by providing information on Kim Dotcom, founder of online file-sharing site Megaupload, to U.S. authorities before a raid on his home in early 2012.

Dotcom, a German national with New Zealand residency, faces Internet piracy charges. He had lobbied against the new legislation.

"The GCSB bill just passed in parliament against the will of most Kiwis. RIP Privacy," Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, said on Twitter after Wednesday's vote.

(Reporting by Michael Sin; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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