NZSIS’s first unclassified threat assessment targets competition, public trust, technology

By rnz.co.nz

New Zealand’s spy agency has for the first time published an unclassified threat assessment, highlighting rising global competition, falling public trust, technological innovation and global economic instability.

Andrew Hampton Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

They say these are the main factors driving the threats New Zealand collectively faces: violent extremism, foreign interference and espionage.

The report also names China, Russia and Iran as three states responsible for foreign interference in Aotearoa, saying their actions have the potential to cause significant harm.

“Only a small number of states engage in interference against New Zealand, but some do so persistently and with the potential for significant harm,” the report said, “This report highlights the activities of three states in particular: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia.”

Mis- and disinformation was also identified as a common factor affecting a range of threats.

“Some states will seek to gain an advantage in any way they can. Technological developments are a common feature of strategic competition but attempts to drive social changes are becoming equally commonplace. The race to gain an upper hand is also helping to fuel a hyper-active information environment in which disinformation can spread rapidly,” the report said.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) published the report on Friday as part of a drive to be more open about New Zealand’s national security after the inquiry into the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks.

It follows the release just a week earlier of a new Defence strategy published by the government which would ramp up New Zealand’s readiness for combat, in a shift to a more proactive approach, alongside a new National Security Strategy which promised these threat assessments would be delivered each year.

Foreign interference

This first report said espionage had shifted: while in the past it had focused on classified and government information it was now broader, looking at New Zealand organisations and citizens with useful information including economically.

“This involves the theft of trade secrets, intellectual property, and new and sensitive technologies. We call this economic espionage,” the report said.

It also said Covid-19 border restrictions had changed the way countries approached interference, with more of a focus on cyberespionage, and targeting of New Zealanders based in other countries.

“Russia’s international disinformation campaigns have not targeted New Zealand specifically, but have had an impact on the views of some New Zealanders,” the report said.

However, the “most notable” threat of interference was China’s targeting of Chinese communities in New Zealand.

“NZSIS is aware of ongoing activity in and against New Zealand and our home region that is linked to the PRC’s intelligence services. This is a complex intelligence concern for New Zealand,” the report said.

The report labelled these kind of efforts – aimed at curbing dissent among expatriates – as “transnational repression”, which could include surveillance and monitoring, harrassment, threats and assaults, harm to relatives still in the country of origin, and “involuntary repatriation” where people were forcibly returned to their country of origin.

Russia was largely mentioned in relation to its invasion of Ukraine, and the economic influence it could wield as a result, including in energy markets.

“Foreign states may seek to exploit difficult economic times and the associated fear it creates,” the report said.

It also said the economic sanctions Russia faced had “likely hindered its development of new technologies and encouraged it to use more covert methods of acquiring essential components”.

Indeed, economic instability was highlighted as one of the four main factors affecting New Zealand’s security environment, driven by rising global inflation and the efforts to tame it; the persisting war in Ukraine and its effect on the European economy; and the “sharp correction” to China’s economy which grew just 3 percent last year, its second-lowest rate since 1977.

Iran was singled out for “societal” interference, with the report saying activities included monitoring and reporting on Iranian communities and dissident groups.

“Globally, Iran has sought to silence dissenting Iranian voices in response to perceived threats to the Islamic Republic. Such activity has historically been unlikely in New Zealand, although the NZSIS continues to assess the threat in light of Iran’s increasingly aggressive behaviour internationally.”

NZSIS director-general Andrew Hampton said competition between countries was becoming more acute.

“This environment is prompting some states to seek advantage through subversive and dishonest means such as espionage and foreign interference against New Zealand and New Zealand’s interests.”

He said it was important to note it was the states themselves and the people acting on their behalf – not the people living there – that posed a threat.

“The report does not single out any community as a threat to our country, and to do so would be a misinterpretation of the analysis,” he said.

The assessment said competing visions for regional and global orders had returned to the forefront of international relations, making for a more complex and unpredictable security environment.

Being more open about national security

Hampton said the report was an “upfront assessment of how New Zealand connects into the global security environment”, and was attempting to provide more clarity to the public about safety and security risks.

“Being more open about national security means that as a country we can develop a greater understanding and be better placed to manage risks.”

The report also highlighted that this more open approach could also mean states changing their approach to interference activity: “Deliberate protective efforts to guard against the threat since 2016 have probably helped make interference more difficult, but will also be driving changes to how states carry out political and societal interference.”

The report said the rapid changes in threats would require a similarly rapid evolution in responses.

“Thinking about how we can make ourselves harder targets for acts of violent extremism, foreign interference and espionage has developed considerably in recent years and will need to continue on a similar trajectory in order to stay ahead of those who wish to cause us harm.”

Violent extremism – case studies

The report said the past year had seen the domestic and global emergence of individuals with extremist beliefs, which were being classed in four categories: politically motivated; identity motivated; faith motivated; and a hodgepodge called “mixed, unstable and unclear” ideologies.

The report said anti-authority narratives which gathered momentum online during the peak of the pandemic had created new pathways for violent extremism – giving foreign states new opportunities for interference.

“We assess there is a realistic possibility there are individuals in New Zealand who have the intent, and almost certainly have or could easily acquire the capability, to conduct a domestic terrorist attack. However, we are currently not aware of any specific or credible domestic attack planning – this includes by individuals or groups based outside of New Zealand. That assessment could change rapidly, and at any time.”

One case study said police had acted on SIS information about a person after reports of threats motivated by ideological opposition to Covid-19 mandates. It said the person had shown an “us vs them” ideology and felt their beliefs justified violence.

“The individual made threats to shoot specific politicians and supporters of Covid-19 mandates using legal and illegal firearms they possessed,” the report said. “NZSIS used its legal authority to share this information with New Zealand Police, who then worked to mitigate the threat the individual posed.”

In another case, a person motivated by white supremacy ideology had supported violence against specific minority groups and women, made violent threats against government representatives, posted online about having radicalised someone else, and considered applying for a firearms licence.

However, the SIS’s assessment found while this person may have encouraged others, they did not have the intent to carry out violence themselves and were facing challenges in their life unrelated to their ideology.

“NZSIS passed relevant information to other government agencies best placed to intervene and support the individual.”

Misinformation and falling levels of trust

With declining levels of trust highlighted as one of the four main factors in New Zealand’s threat environment, the report cited a Treasury study into social cohesion.

That study had identified the reasons behind declining trust related to three things: “perceptions that people are being deliberately lied to and misled; that those with power don’t have New Zealand’s best interests at heart; and that politicians are incapable of solving the problems facing the country”.

The SIS report said while the majority of people would use legal and non-violent means including voting, protesting or standing as an electoral candidate to make these beliefs known, some could feel they had no other option than to take an illegal or violent approach.

“New Zealanders that rely heavily on discredited foreign information sources, such as the official or state-backed media of autocratic countries, are likely to be more vulnerable to the effects of disinformation. Often for those for whom English is a second language, there are few or no alternatives,” the report said.

Hampton said false and discredited information could shape pathways to violent extremism, as well as create opportunities for foreign interference.

“Our analysis is not about predicting what people or governments will do, rather it is about understanding the factors that motivate or drive particular choices so we can better prepare ourselves for the security threats of the present and the future.”

The report stated online communities in New Zealand were also being used by other countries to run disinformation campaigns, and as sources of intelligence.

“Social discontent provides unique opportunities for foreign states to conduct interference activity. States may try to leverage significant social tensions or disagreements in society to their advantage.”

Keep threats in perspective, Brownlee says

The National Party said being open about the threats facing New Zealand was a useful approach, as long as the risks themselves were kept in perspective.

GCSB and SIS spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said he did not think there would be too much in the report “that hasn’t been in broader public discussion at some point”.

The difference, he said, was that the government had “decided that the New Zealand public should be more informed about the work of the GCSB and SIS”.

“And I think that’s okay, I just don’t think we should be getting too frantic about some of these things, it’s important to know what’s going on and to be aware of it. But in the end, the role of New Zealand government is to protect the sovereignty of this country, and to protect the values of freedom and democracy that we live by,” Brownlee said.

As for the name-checking of the three countries it “would be good if it was backed by some hard information or factual information to back those claims… some of the case studies don’t quite go to that depth”.

Brownlee acknowledged the need at times to balance informing the public against protecting classified information, but said it was as much about the tone and context.

“I’ve never been in favour of secret societies or others operating inside a country that claims to be one of the world’s oldest democracies as New Zealand does. So I think being open about these things is useful.

“I think it’s the tenor of the discussion that you’ve got to be a little bit cautious about, but New Zealanders need to be aware that while we may live some distance down towards the bottom of the world, we’re not immune to threats that other countries experience and have to deal with.”

A spokesperson for the Defence Minister Andrew Little, also responsible for the GCSB and SIS, said the document was a “departmental publication, not a ministerial announcement… Minister Little considers the document speaks for itself”.

They referred RNZ to his speech at the launch of the National Security Strategy “for the government’s view on the national security outlook and the policy framework for responding to it”.

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