Community, Technology

Spy base’s low-key birthday

GCSB director-general Andrew Hampton outside Waihopai Station. Photo: Supplied.

Thirty years of government spying has quietly passed by up the Waihopai Valley last month.

The satellite spy station turned 30 years old in September.

To mark the occasion, Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) director-general Andrew Hampton conducted a video tour of the controversial domes, giving the public a rare look at the inner workings.

Established in September 1989, the station is famous internationally for being a part of the ‘five eyes’ network with the US, UK, Australia and Canada.

But the 80’s décor is long gone, says a GCSB spokesperson – who due to security clearance is unable to be named.

The spokesperson says the Waihopai site was chosen for three main reasons.

“It has a big sky; you can see pretty much from horizon to horizon.

“It is electromagnetically quiet. There are fewer radio and other signals than what you would find in built up areas.

The final reason, the spokesperson says, was cost.

Land was “reasonably priced” in the valley 30 years ago.

Both dishes are protected from the elements by inflatable ‘radomes’ – one of which was famously deflated in a 2008 by protest group Ploughshares Aotearoa.

The protesters were eventually acquitted and $1.2 million in damages was written off by the government.

The GCSB spokesperson was unable to “definitively” say why the domes are inflated, rather than utilising a frame, but suggested it was likely a combination of engineering and costs.

The first dish was installed in 1989 followed by a second in 1995.

The protection afforded by the domes could see the dishes working for another 30 years.

“Since the domes protect the dishes from the different weather conditions they are in good condition, and they have also been well maintained,” the spokesperson says.

Satellites do not send data specifically to dishes, but broadcast to a wide region.

These transmissions are what can be intercepted by the Waihopai Station.

“The GCSB only collects a very small proportion of communications in line with the strict rules of the Intelligence and Security Act,” the spokesperson says.

“Any intelligence collected by the GCSB is only collected under warrants, follows the Intelligence and Security Act and everything the GCSB does is subject to the robust and independent oversight from the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.

“There are many different ways of gathering intelligence and each has their own benefits.

“Waihopai station is an important part of the GCSB and helps to achieve the GCSB’s mission of protecting and enhancing the national security and wellbeing of New Zealand.

“Unfortunately, we can’t go into any details on specific cases.”

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