GCSB boss Andrew Hampton warns against local election online voting

The Director-General of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) has warned against local elections going online, citing security concerns.

Andrew Hampton appeared alongside New Zealand Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge on Thursday at the Justice Select Committee where the pair was asked to comment on possible election interference.

The select committee was given a classified briefing from Kitteridge and Hampton after their public appearance, but before then the spy bosses disclosed that "interference in New Zealand's elections by a state actor was, and remains, plausible".

Hampton confirmed that the GCSB did not pick up on any candidates or political parties being targeted by cyber operations in the 2017 election. But he said New Zealand was far from safe, and that there have been plenty of "high-profile international examples".

MPs also asked him and Kitteridge to comment on local body elections. He said the GCSB has had ongoing concerns about the security implications of proposals to pilot or introduce online voting for local body elections.

"Manual voting is much less susceptible to compromise and the administrators of local elections do not have the experience or support that the Electoral Commission does, including from my agency," he said.

Kitteridge said she is aware of some state actors that have the intention of "making donations without it being clear where the donations came from".

Rebecca Kitteridge and Andrew Hampton at the Justice Select Committee.
Rebecca Kitteridge and Andrew Hampton at the Justice Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub

The NZSIS boss said the agency is aware of efforts by foreign states to "covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities in New Zealand".

And she warned that the agency becomes concerned when "some aspect of the donation is obscured or is channelled in a way that prevents scrutiny of the origin of the donation".

Hampton said internationally there is evidence that state actors have scanned electoral systems looking for vulnerabilities, "so I wouldn't say it's given me reassurance - it's probably given me more reason for concern".

He said there is a "range of risks with electronic systems - but a big one is that someone can get inside the system and actually manipulate the vote. You only need one instance of that and the whole result is subject to question".

"Technology is always changing," Hampton added. "Security is always getting better, so I'm not going to say we will never be in a position where we can endorse electronic voting, but at the moment the risks are just too high."

Independent MP for Botany Jami-Lee Ross has raised concerns about overseas actors influencing local body elections through donations. Last month he proposed changes to the Local Electoral Act 2001 to put a limit on the amount of donations from overseas.

"The restrictions that exist for parliamentary elections under the Electoral Act 1993 are not mirrored in local government legislation," he said at the time.

"An overseas donor can make a donation of an unlimited amount, and the candidate would only have to declare this after the election."

In the Local Electoral Matters Bill published online, the National Party expressed caution about proposals to "introduce internet voting into local or central government elections".

National said while it saw merit in the opportunity to send voting papers from overseas from remote locations, it said these methods "should still require a paper ballot to be generated and we should be cautious about using the internet to vote generally until widely known security issues are resolved".