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New Zealand's surveillance fight could change the way the NSA spies on the Pacific

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This weekend's election may shift the balance of power

The U.S. Embassy in New Zealand / Flickr

See if this sounds familiar: a bombshell Snowden leak shows the head of a major country is surveilling his own citizens. The leader denies it, but Snowden keeps pushing, with more documents and increasingly specific accusations. Pretty soon, the public wants answers and his political opponents start to use the leaks against him, even as the nation's spy agencies refuse to give up the goods.

It's an unusually heated fight

This week, it's happening in New Zealand, where Prime Minister John Key is fending off accusations of maintaining a massive metadata surveillance system in the run-up to the country's general elections on Saturday. Key denies spying on any New Zealand citizens, but The Intercept has extensive documents detailing the program, which contains many of the same email and phone surveillance measures that were revealed in America, something Key had specifically denied. In a rare editorial, Snowden says outright that Key lied about the existence of the programs. It's an unusually heated fight, even for Snowden, and thanks to the nation's central place in the internet cables of the South Pacific, it's a fight that could have major implications outside of New Zealand.

While it's not a large country, a significant quantity of the Pacific’s data traffic passes through New Zealand, thanks to two data cables that come ashore on the northern island, including the trans-Pacific Southern Cross cable. That makes it ideally situated to help the NSA monitor the world’s web traffic. While the NSA and GCHQ tap into European and Middle Eastern web traffic from a base in Cyprus, New Zealand is perfectly placed to listen in on the South Pacific. It’s also been one of the NSA’s closest historical allies, thanks to its longtime membership in the intelligence alliance known as The Five Eyes. Along with the UK, Canada and Australia, New Zealand has played a major role in secretly aiding the NSA’s data collection outside US borders.

New Zealand sits at the center of many of the Pacific's data cables

After the Snowden leaks, however, that collaboration is now public — and many in New Zealand are raising doubts about how useful it has been for the country at large. The Five Eyes partnership has been useful and prestigious for New Zealand's spies, but it's unclear how much it has benefited the country's citizens. If the country decides to oust Key in favor of a less surveillance-friendly government, the NSA's cable-tapping efforts in the South Pacific might face a real roadblock. It wouldn't be a disastrous blow. Between Hawaii, Guam, and Australia, the US would have plenty of other places to listen in on the same web traffic. But it would be among the most tangible blowback the NSA has seen so far, and if similar efforts take off in Cyprus and beyond, it could mean real problems for the NSA's global surveillance systems.

As a result, Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks' Julian Assange are all lobbying hard to make surveillance a key issue in the upcoming election. Greenwald attended a press conference at the Auckland town hall on Monday, along with MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom and Laila Harre, the leader of the country's Internet Party. (Snowden and Assange appeared through video links.) Key had previously promised to resign if the nation's spy agency was found to have conducted mass surveillance on New Zealand’s citizens, but his critics say that, as in the US, such a far-reaching database would inevitably pick up conversations involving local citizens.

It’s still unclear how the issue will play out in the election. More than half of New Zealanders say they are concerned about government surveillance, although Key is still leading in the race according to recent polls. In the meantime, it's a sign that the NSA's critics aren't shying away from any fights — even if those fights are happening halfway around the world.