New Zealand's government is pushing to change the law 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 leaks by a former U.S. security contractor.
The minority centre-right National Party government wants to legalise 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 organised crime, which he has said was always understood to have been legal.
"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 U.S. National Security Agency, exposed widespread electronic eavesdropping by the United States.
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.
The government has only 59 seats in the 121-seat parliament and has agreements with three small parties 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.
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.
A separate law being considered by parliament would require New Zealand telecoms companies to allow surveillance agencies' access to their networks.