The question of spying

So New Zealand is ''spying'' on some of our ''closest'', ''friendliest'' and most ''vulnerable'' neighbours.

Those are the emotive words being bandied about in the wake of the supposed ''revelations'' in documents released by former American National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, the ''whistleblower'' now living in exile in Russia.

The surveillance details were reported yesterday, released in a collaboration between some New Zealand media, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and the Intercept news site, which holds Snowden's documents.

More releases are promised.

The first documents reportedly show the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is spying on almost two dozen countries - including our Pacific Island neighbours the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, Nauru and Samoa - and sharing the information collected (email, phone and social media communications) with our Five Eyes partners: the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia.

In response, Prime Minister John Key says ''of course'' intelligence gathering and sharing is done, but it is for ''really, really good reasons'' and ''to keep New Zealand safe''.

He has, as he did with Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book of revelations, downplayed and dismissed the documents, saying New Zealanders should ''discount massively everything'' from Mr Hager.

Mr Key said he would ''sleep like an absolute baby'' regardless of the revelations.

Mr Hager says the files show we cannot even view our own information but have to access it through the NSA, that we have ''sold ourselves out big time'' and ''the price of being in the club'' has been ''doing over our little neighbours'' which makes a mockery of our ''independent foreign policy''.

He says Mr Key's dismissals are a ''sad indictment on New Zealand'' given leaders of other countries implicated in Snowden releases have at least been willing to debate issues.

With such polarising views, many New Zealanders will be wondering who to believe, who to trust - and whether they should even care?

There is nothing illegal about the GCSB's work in relation to other countries.

It is, however, not allowed to spy on New Zealanders, and given the number of NZ citizens who work, live and visit the Pacific it seems inevitable that must have occurred.

Whether that is acceptable ''collateral damage'' should at the very least be discussed.

The other issues seem to be about necessity and values.

It is naive to think countries do not spy on each other.

And most would likely agree it is also naive to think there are not some valid reasons to do so.

Safety is billed as a fundamental reason for spying, and there has been political instability in the Pacific.

Influences in parts of the region are also changing.

The global fear of terrorism and Islamic State is a reason for spying to some, and an excuse to others.

Certainly it is a compelling reason for the Prime Minister, who attacked those involved for the timing of the release when New Zealand faced a terror threat: ''We've got the situation where we've Isil reaching out to cause harm to New Zealanders.''

It is the strongest indication yet he has given of the real risk to Kiwis since he committed a New Zealand contingent to the conflict zone in Iraq, telling the Opposition to ''get some guts''.

Ironically, in that same speech in Parliament, he said: ''New Zealand is a country that stands up for its values. We stand up for what's right. We have carved out our own independent foreign policy over decades and we take pride in it.''

And that is the nub of this matter.

Are our dealings really those of a free and independent state?

Are they dealings our Pacific friends knew about when they supported our successful bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council as the independent voice for smaller countries?

If not, what does that say about our values and ethics?

Is it right to spy on those who support us, and then give that information to others?

If there is a price to pay for our safety and security, surely we need to discuss that?

At the very least, New Zealanders deserve to know the truth about themselves and the country's place in the world.

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