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WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand is pushing to change its laws to widen surveillance of citizens by one of its spy agencies, despite growing global concern over the scope and security of such activities following damning revelations of monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
New Zealand's minority centre-right National Party government wants to legalize 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 Bureau spies on foreign targets via electronic listening posts and shares data with the United States, Australia, Canada, and Britain under what is called the "Five Eyes" partnership, but is barred from spying on New Zealand citizens.
Prime Minister John Key's government wants to amend the law to let the Bureau provide technical support to domestic agencies for operations against terrorism and organized crime.
"This legislation is in New Zealand's interests. At the end of the day, this isn't playtime," he told reporters.
Western spy agencies are facing scrutiny after Edward Snowden, a former systems administrator at the NSA, exposed widespread electronic eavesdropping by the United States.
Snowden fled Hong Kong, where he had been living, after the United States charged him with espionage. He is now in the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and has applied for asylum in Ecuador.
His revelations on widespread NSA surveillance of global Internet and telephone traffic has raised a storm of privacy concerns as well as anger in targeted nations like China.
Although the proposed change to the New Zealand law predates the Snowden revelations, it has stirred concerns about the reach and security of spying and data collection.
The New Zealand Law Society has strongly opposed it as being intrusive, and inconsistent with laws protecting privacy and civil liberties.
Similar concerns have been raised in India, where sources have told Reuters a wide-ranging surveillance program that will give its security agencies the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament has been launched.
However, in Australia, the government has shelved plans to force phone and Internet companies to hold two years of phone call and email data following concerns raised by a parliamentary inquiry into telecommunications interception laws.
It is not clear if the New Zealand legislation will pass parliament.
The government has only 59 seats in the 121-seat parliament and has agreements with three small parties only on confidence and fiscal matters.
The main opposition Labour and Green Parties oppose the bill, which is now with a parliamentary panel that will consider public submissions over the next month.
Greens Party co-leader Russel Norman has been a vocal opponent of the actions and reach of the Bureau and has praised Snowden's actions in exposing the U.S. surveillance. He has suggested New Zealand should offer him protection, a suggestion Key dismisses as "ridiculous".
Key has said he was confident the single member of the centrist United Future Party, one of the support parties, would change his opposition to the Bureau doing domestic surveillance.
The prime minister has also said he may be able to do a deal with the nationalist New Zealand First Party, a strong critic of many government economic policies, but which has said it might support a law change with added safeguards for privacy.
A former head of the Bureau said the domestic law change was necessary, as were the agency's links to foreign agencies.
"It's a healthy way of clarifying the law, and it's a healthy way of ensuring New Zealand security is protected into the future," Bruce Ferguson, who retired as GCSB director in 2011, told Reuters, adding that the Snowden leaks were unlikely to affect intelligence sharing.
On Snowden, he said: "It's regretful he's done what he's done, I don't see what positive purpose it has apart from giving people a whole bunch of information on which to become paranoid."
A separate law being considered by parliament would require New Zealand telecoms companies to allow surveillance agencies' access to their networks.
Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan