A suspected terrorist who was targeted by an infamous NSA surveillance program for monitoring online communications has been identified, and it turns out he was an innocent resident of New Zealand.
Tony Fullman was targeted from July through August 2012, according to a report published Sunday by Television New Zealand and The Intercept. The 47-year-old was suspected of participating in a plot to overthrow the military government in the island nation of Fiji, from which he had immigrated to New Zealand more than 20 years prior. He went again to the country from 2009-11 to work as CEO of the Fiji Water Authority.
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After Fullman's return home to New Zealand, according to more than 190 pages of surveillance records turned over by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the United States worked with New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service, an agency similar to the FBI, to spy on him through the NSA's controversial PRISM program, which is used to monitor online communication over mediums like Facebook and Gmail.
The program, which was exposed by Snowden in 2013, is technically intended for use solely on foreign targets, though critics note it is impossible for the surveillance regime to exclude U.S. citizens who communicate overseas. According to TV New Zealand, the program also represented a way for officials in that country to get around the fact that they were prohibited from engaging in similar operations against their citizens.
"The ... operation appears to have been sparked in early July 2012 when Fullman and his pro-democracy friend Ratu Tevita Mara, son of a long term Fiji prime minister, visited Auckland," the station reported, during which time they met with pro-democracy activists from Fiji, and after which intelligence officials became more aggressive in their efforts to obtain information.
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The surveillance resulted in the collection of reams of personal information on Fullman, including messages about his ailing mother, a younger relative, and his personal bank statements. Despite the lack of actionable information, New Zealand authorities raided Fullman's home in Wellington, seized his personal devices, and revoked his passport.
Less than a year later, the government rescinded its claims and reinstated Fullman's passport. Fullman, who previously worked with intelligence services to catch tax cheats, said this week that he was perplexed by the situation. "From what I was told and how they operate, I kinda had higher expectations that they would have done a thorough check before initiating any sort of, 'Hey, this guy is a terrorist.' They didn't."
The PRISM program, which is alternatively known as Section 702 authority in reference to an authorizing provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is set to expire at the end of 2017 if it doesn't receive congressional reauthorization. Privacy advocates have sought to kill the program unless reforms are made, a goal toward which U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has promised he is working.