Only three days after Nanaia Mahuta had dinner with China’s Foreign Minister, New Zealand’s intelligence chiefs were talking about state actors interfering in New Zealand politics and using ethnic communities here for espionage purposes.
Neither GSCB Director (and new SIS director) Andrew Hampton nor acting SIS CEO Phil McKee would name the countries they were talking about when they appeared before Parliament’s Intelligence Committee yesterday.
“Our agencies operate in secret for a reason,” said Hampton.
“That’s why we exist to be able to access information that’s not readily available.
“So we need to be very conscious of those equities when we are putting information out into the public arena.”
However, it is easy to construct a shortlist of candidates; China, Russia and possibly Iran and Israel.
They will not be the only ones. But it is China and Russia who are obviously the main suspects.
McKee said as much.
“When we look at the threat environment and try to understand the factors affecting the environment, one key overarching theme emerges; that is that many of the threats we are facing stem in some ways from increased strategic competition,” he said.
“This marks a clear shift in the dynamics of our national security.
“We have seen competition between states intensify over the past year, and this will have security implications for New Zealand for some time.
“Foreign states will be looking for a strategic or intelligence advantage in this rivalry.
“What that means for us in our home region is more frequent attempts to disrupt and interfere in our democracy, our economy, our information environment and our social fabric. “
Hampton did name Russia but only as a source of state-sponsored cyber attacks.
“Russia, along with other Eastern European states, are known states of origin or safe harbours to those who conduct sophisticated, malicious cyber campaigns, both state-sponsored and criminally motivated,” he said.
An OECD study last November found that systematic information manipulation and disinformation have been applied by the Russian government as an operational tool as part of its invasion of Ukraine.
“The Russian disinformation narratives are often false, or obscure facts with half-truths and “whataboutisms” (efforts to respond to an issue by comparing it to a different issue that does not engage with the original one).<” the study concluded.
“Russian actors employ a diverse strategy to introduce, amplify, and spread false and distorted narratives across the world. Its efforts rely on a mix of fake and artificial accounts, anonymous websites and official state media sources to distribute and amplify content that advances its interests and undermines competing narratives.”
Hampton said New Zealand research showed that a higher proportion of New Zealanders were absorbing a higher amount of misinformation from Russia.
“But when you picked into the research that was all being circulated by New Zealanders, it was a relatively small number of New Zealanders who were getting that and processing and spreading around,” he said.
“It wasn’t the Russian actors doing it directly.”
Hampton said it was not the role of the intelligence agencies to try and police New Zealanders sharing information.
“Our overseas partners are very aware of this, and I can’t talk to specifics about it, but steps sometimes are taken at source,” he said.
Security Agencies’ Minister Andrew Little last July publicly condemned malicious activity targeting Microsoft Exchange by state actors from the People’s Republic of China.
But though China is frequently accused by various countries around the world of mounting cyber attacks, its activities in New Zealand may be more complex.
“We only see a small number of states conducting interference against New Zealand, but some of those are persistent and have the potential to cause significant harm,” McKee said.
“To be clear, we regard foreign interference as actions by a state that have the intentions to influence, disrupt or subvert our national interests by covert corruptive, deceptive or threatening means.
“Normal diplomatic activities or up-front lobbying don’t fall within the foreign interference definition.
“Some of the most insidious examples concern harassment of ethnic communities in New Zealand who speak out against the actions of a foreign government.
“There are examples where information is collected on them and used to threaten whanau members in their own country home country.
“We have also seen attempts at foreign interference against university academics, local government officials and the media.”
He said that often it was long-term enduring partnerships that foreign actors were trying to create with individuals.
“It might be to gain a relationship with someone thinking that they will be put in an influential role or a position in the future,” he said.
“And that’s what makes this hard in many cases.”
Pressed by journalists as to whether he was talking about China, McKee said that if countries were going to be called out, that process needed to be a very deliberate and considered process.
“Today’s point is around foreign interference is important to us as a democratic country, and we need to be alert to that,” he said.
People needed to be aware of the threats that relate from a foreign interference perspective, he said.
“And the more that people are aware of that and the more we put the spotlight onto this risk, the more that individuals might recognize if they are being targeted and the more agencies like ours can mitigate that risk.”
McKee said the SIS was soon to publish a threat environment report, the first of its type, which would show what the Service considered were some of the factors influencing our threat environment.
Both Hampton, who is not only about to become CEO of the SIS but also Director of Security, repeated throughout yesterday’s Committee session their intention that the intelligence agencies be more open with the public.
But that openness will not extend to naming the countries that pose specific threats to New Zealand.
In the case of China, in particular, there is too much at stake in the bilateral relationship to put it at risk by naming China as a security threat.
We may say so, but the SIS couldn’t possibly comment.