Top secret documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrate that the GCSB, with ongoing NSA cooperation, implemented Phase I of a mass surveillance program code-named “SPEARGUN” at some point in 2012 or early 2013. SPEARGUN involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable. This cable carries the vast majority of internet traffic between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and mass collection from it would mark the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades.
Upon completion of the first stage, SPEARGUN moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables. The NSA documents note that the first such metadata probe was scheduled for “mid-2013.” Surveillance probes of this sort are commonly/used by NSA and/their/partners to tap into huge flows of information from communication cables in real time, enabling them to extract the dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, and the like. The technique is almost by definition a form of mass surveillance; metadata is relatively useless for intelligence purposes without a massive amount of similar data to analyze it against and trace connections through.
The NSA documents note in more than one place that completion of SPEARGUN was impeded by one obstacle: The need to enact a new spying law that would allow the GCSB, for the first time, to spy on its own citizens as well as legal residents of the country.
It was of sufficient interest to the NSA that in March 2013, the director of Prime Minister Key’s Intelligence Coordination Group traveled to NSA headquarters to offer an update on the legislation.