Big changes announced yesterday to the country’s spy agencies will allow private sector companies access to the country’s top counter intelligence operators.

The Government is inviting the private sector to seek the help of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to protect vital information from cyber attack.

It is clear that some already do.

In background papers released by the Prime Minister’s office yesterday, it was revealed that the GCSB has since April this year “provided hands-on, highly intensive assurance” to six private sector organisations.

All up the GCSB has logged 316 cyber incidents since April.

That compared with only 190 for the 12 months ending June 30, 2015.

“As part of its efforts to provide cyber security, GCSB operates the CORTEX project, which counters cyber threats to organisations of national significance,” the papers say.

“The organisations receiving CORTEX protections include government departments, key economic generators, niche exporters, research institutions and operators of critical national infrastructure.”

At a press conference yesterday announcing the new Intelligence and Security Bill, the Minister in Charge of the GSCB and SIS, Chris Finlayson, and the Prime Minister provided more detail.

“There are a number of examples of companies or agencies that have very valuable intellectual property or trade secrets, and we want to protect them as they do their job for New Zealand without them being subject to some of the cyber crime activities that regrettably we see around the world today,” said Finlayson.

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The Prime Minister said private sector entities were  already using the services of the GCSB.

“But I personally think a hell of a lot more of them should and the reason for that is that we now live in a world where not only most of the secrets but also the operational activity of companies are held digitally,” he said.

”So if you are an electricity supplier, a water supplier or if you run aircraft navigation systems — all of that work happens now in an electronic environment.

“There’s a risk if those environments are compromised.

“So companies have to take cyber security seriously, and we are seeing an exponential number of attacks both on New Zealand companies and on government agencies when it comes to cyber risk.”

What the new legislation says

The comments came with the launch of the legislation giving effect to the recommendations of the Cullen/Reddy review of the intelligence agencies.

The new legislation will replace four existing piece s of legislation, and though Key and Finlayson were quick to deny there was any thought of merging the agencies, the legislation will have the effect of bringing them closer together.

They are already physically alongside each other in the high-security Pipitea Centre in Thorndon.

But the new Bill makes substantial changes to current practices:

  • It introduces a new method for the issuance of interception warrants including a so-called “triple lock” for any warrant involving a New Zealander. Interestingly a New Zealander was defined by Finlayson as a New Zealand citizen  or perhaps surprisingly,  a permanent resident.
  • Oversight of the services will be stepped up with a strengthened role for the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, and Parliamentary oversight will be expanded.

The “triple lock” means that any interception warrant involving a New Zealander would require initially the approval of the Attorney General and a Commissioner of Intelligence Warrants and then would be subject to review by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Interception warrants targeting non-New Zealanders (diplomats?) will require approval only from the Attorney General though they will also be subject to review by the Inspector General.

GCSB can now intercept New Zealanders’ communications

The other big change with warrants is that they will allow the GCSB to intercept communications of New Zealanders.

The background papers say: “It is proposed that NZSIS and GCSB can conduct the same overarching activities, such as ‘search’, but will have different powers to carry out these activities.

“For example, GCSB can conduct a remote search of a computer, while NZSIS can carry out a physical search of private property.

“ This would recognise that NZSIS operates primarily in the physical world and GCSB primarily in the electronic.”

And in the best traditions of spy novels, the legislation will allow both the SIS and GCSB to “acquire, use and maintain assumed identities.”

That includes permitting agents from the services to make misleading or false claims about their employment. (SIS agents often  say they work for the Ministry of Defence rather than “the service”).

Oversight strengthened

The changes to oversight include increasing the number of members of Parliament;’s Intelligence and Security Committee to between five and seven members. Currently, only National and Labour MPs sit on the Committee but now that Labour has its memorandum of understanding with the Greens there will be a question whether a Green MP should sit there also. 

The Committee will be allowed to ask the Inspector-General to inquire into any matter which gives it teeth it has never previously had..

Labour still not entirely happy

The politics of the Bill look a little shaky at present.

Labour is supporting the Bill going to the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Committee but in a statement last night, Andrew Little said he had concerns that Labour wanted to see addressed.

“The definition of National Security must be amended at Select Committee following a national debate.

“At present, the definition is too broad and must be narrowed down to actual threats to security and government.

“It also concerns that the legislation appears to have ignored a number of the protections for personal information suggested by the Cullen Reddy Review.

“These are vital and must be a part of the legislation.

“ In today’s world it is too easy to ignore privacy concerns and we have seen what happens in the past when protections aren’t clear.

“Labour is supporting the Bill through its first reading in good faith that these changes can be made. “

Key open to changes

And Key sounded open to that.

He pointed out that the Government had included Michael Cullen in the original review because he was hopeful of having Labour’s support on the Bill.

He said Labour had been working very constructively with the Government at the Intelligence and Security Committee.

“It’s a genuine Select Committee process,” he said.

“It’s been our preference to have bipartisan support with Labour on important issues like national security.”

But he wasn’t quite so conciliatory about parties which might oppose the legislation.

Though Labour has yet to say yes, these are more likely to be the Greens and New Zealand First. 

He said there was a genuine understanding among New Zealanders that in an age of global terror,  to protect them and make them safe, then the best way to do that was to have information which allowed the Government to foil any potential threats.

“It is going to be very difficult for political parties if they do not vote for this legislation, and there was ultimately an issue in New Zealand; then clearly fingers would be pointed about whether we could have done more to stop it.”

The legislation is substantial; it puts the security and intelligence sector on a much more professional footing, and though it extends their powers it also increases their oversight.

What runs through the background papers and the Reddy/Cullen report is an obvious belief on the part of the Government and the intelligence community that New Zealand either faces, or easily could face, security threats.

That is vastly different to the Cold War intelligence environment which largely focussed on supposed subversive activities by communists or nefarious activities by the Soviet Embassy.

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