James Henderson

Tech innovation now ‘major threat’ to NZ national security, critical infrastructure concerns grow

Technological innovation is one of four key factors shaping the domestic threat environment in New Zealand, following the first public risk assessment issued by the country’s domestic intelligence agency.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) is tasked with monitoring the threats of violent extremism, foreign interference and espionage facing the country and cited the use of established and emerging technologies as key areas of concern.

Such concern spans the increase in cyber security attacks and the potential impact on critical national infrastructure, the rise of digital technologies and the importance of protecting sensitive data, in addition to increased levels of connectivity, creative uses of 3D printing and protecting intellectual property (IP).

“Technology is part of our daily lives and its pace of advancement brings new challenges for New Zealand’s security and wellbeing,” said Andrew Hampton, Director-General of Security at NZSIS. “Technology is ever more closely linked with other factors in our threat environment such as social disruption and strategic competition.”

Andrew Hampton (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service)

Following the terrorist attack on Christchurch in March 2019 – when a white supremacist shot and killed 51 worshippers at two mosques – a royal commission inquiry called for the publication of an annual ‘threatscape report’.

In response, New Zealand’s Security Threat Environment 2023 has been published as an analytical report on the nature of the threats facing the country, sharing more than what has previously been documented at an unclassified level by the NZSIS.

The report outlines four key factors that influence the nation’s contemporary threat environment in relation to violent extremism, foreign interference and espionage, specifically:

  • Strategic competition
  • Declining social trust
  • Technological innovation
  • Global economic instability

Within this context, the NZSIS highlighted the activities of three states in particular – China, Iran and Russia.

“Competition between states is becoming more acute,” Hampton added. “NZSIS is very clear that those responsible for the foreign interference threat are the states themselves and the people who act on their behalf. The vast majority of people who whakapapa to those countries are not the threat.”

For Hampton, this is an important distinction.

“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 cautioned.

Critical infrastructure concerns grow

In providing an “upfront assessment” of how New Zealand connects into the global security environment, findings are designed to highlight how those with malicious intent take steps to undermine the country’s democracy and security.

On the topic of technology, challenges continues to mount for NZSIS with cyber-enabled espionage by foreign states posing a “significant threat” to New Zealand’s national security and economic prosperity.

“The threat to critical national infrastructure is a particular area of concern,” Hampton acknowledged.

According to the report, the impact of malicious cyber activity targeting the country’s critical national infrastructure – such as electricity grids or telecommunication networks – would likely be “significant”.

“There is also the potential for malicious cyber actors to opportunistically or inadvertently compromise critical national infrastructure through network vulnerabilities that leave the sector exposed,” Hampton added.

In additional to critical infrastructure, increasing inter-connectivity between people and the delivery of services online is generating an “exponential growth” in the volume and complexity of data.

“Individuals and their activities leave a digital wake over the course of their lives, which is of significant interest to the commercial world but also to states,” Hampton noted.

Hampton said the ability to process large swathes of data means that data leaks and cyber security compromises are becoming more valuable to both governments and the criminal world.

“Acquiring and processing large datasets, including hacked and leaked information, highly likely allows foreign states to develop a comprehensive picture of large groups of people,” he added.

Such activity has been exposed by investigative journalists and civil society groups who have used open source analysis to report on foreign state activity, the report added.

The rise of digital technologies and acceleration of online communities – demonstrated by the proliferation of social media and encrypted communication services – has also contributed to increased levels of radicalisation, the report outlined.

“Foreign states can also use sophisticated digital tools and tactics to identify, locate and monitor citizens or individuals they perceive as threatening offshore,” Hampton explained.

The NZSIS shared that technological innovation now provides opportunity for those who wish to cause harm to do so in ways not originally intended by the manufacturer. For example, violent extremists have used 3D printing to manufacture firearms in terrorist attacks.

“The value of technological innovation for intelligence collection and disruption has driven states to invest significantly in research and development,” Hampton added. “This desire for cutting edge technology is so great that if states cannot develop it themselves they seek to steal it using cyber-espionage and other tactics.”

Intellectual property on technological innovation is equally useful, noted Hampton, sharing that states will deploy their own researchers abroad – “often undercover” – to study defence-related technologies in particular.

Sanctions and export controls also drive some of the illicit activity to acquire advanced technology. Access to some key technologies, such as semiconductors, is often strictly controlled – this is a common feature in US-China competition.

“Technology has made covert activity cheaper and easier,” Hampton warned. “It allows foreign states to conduct foreign interference and cyber espionage and deny any involvement by using cyber-criminal groups or other actors not directly linked to the state.

“The ubiquitous nature of modern information technology provides opportunities for states to conduct societal interference, and using their global reach to locate, monitor, and target individuals and communities.”


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