Agencies of the New Zealand Government are probably restrained in requesting user information from the major global online service providers- Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook. Relative to Australia, on a per capita basis, the New Zealand Government is significantly more restrained, other than for Facebook. However, there could also be a darker explanation.
The graph below shows the absolute user information requests made by the New Zealand Government and relative Australian Government requests for the first six months of 2013. The absolute Australian Government requests have been adjusted so as to be comparable to New Zealand on a population basis (i.e. multiplying the absolute Australian numbers by 4,481,891 / 23,177,830 or 0.1934 to get comparable per capita numbers).
1. MS excldg Skype is Microsoft excluding Skype while MS (Skype) are requests for Skype user information. Both of these are for the 12 months of 2012, the latest numbers available.
2. Twitter number for New Zealand is either not available or zero (it’s not clear from their report which one it is). Twitter number for Australia is user accounts, not user request numbers.
3. Numbers are taken from transparency reports published by the respective online service provider:
4. These numbers are for requests via the “front door”, i.e. official requests made direct to the online service provider. They exclude “back door” requests such as GCSB obtaining information about Kim Dotcom and Bram van der Kolk from the NSA. The numbers also exclude the likely “full take” (all Internet traffic flowing across the Souther Cross Cable) at its USA landing points.
1. In absolute terms, the requests from New Zealand Government for user information are not very high- a total of 180 requests in 6 months to Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook. This is very welcome as it indicates that, so far at least, New Zealand government agencies are using the “front door” to obtain user information by targeted requests.
2. The Australian Government put in 3,741 requests for user information over the same period. On a population adjusted basis, this equates to 723 requests or 4 times that of the New Zealand Government. Clearly, agencies of the Australian Government are far more active in seeking user information.
3. Relatively, requests to Facebook are an exception with both governments putting in exactly the same number of requests on a population adjusted basis (106 requests).
4. While perhaps not clear from the graph, the biggest relative difference between the two Governments is in relation to Skype. The New Zealand Government made 1 request in 6 months while the Australian Government made 195 (38 on a population adjusted basis).
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that transparency numbers are anything but. That’s not to belittle the excellent efforts of publishing transparency reports by the major online service providers. Rather, it is recognition that “front door” requests are only part of the full picture of governments around the world obtaining user information.
Take New Zealand Government requests to Yahoo as an example. Yahoo provides email services for all Telecom (Xtra) customers. The fact that the New Zealand Government made only 9 requests to Yahoo in the first six months of this year for user information should be comforting.
But is it? It is very likely that the Government’s lawful interception capabilities into Telecom’s network obviates the need for most agencies to use Yahoo’s “front door”. It is also very likely that GCSB can use PRISM and XKeyscore to help itself to Yahoo’s user information via a back door.
So I cautiously conclude that the New Zealand Government is probably restrained in requesting user information from the major global online service providers but with a caveat that one really does not know the true and full picture.
The GCSB Bill makes mass surveillance legal. Once the TICS Bill passes and the Government uses secret orders and gag orders, things may get even more uncertain despite reassuring transparency reports.
A final thought: if there are so few Government requests for user information by the “front door”, why force these service providers to build “back doors” by the TICS Bill (destroying confidence in the service providers in the process?)