GCSB, NZSIS concerned about foreign interference in New Zealand election

The leaders of New Zealand's spy agencies have confirmed that foreign interference in the 2017 general election by a state actor "was, and remains, plausible". 

MPs heard submissions on Thursday from the director-general of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) Rebecca Kitteridge and the director-general of the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) Andrew Hampton. 

The pair spoke to the Justice Select Committee after being requested to speak on potential foreign interference in the 2017 general election, in what was a rare public appearance from New Zealand's spy agency bosses. 

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

"There are credible reports of interference campaigns in the elections of other countries, and these attempts are increasing in their sophistication," Kitteridge said. 

She pointed to a recent report by the Canadian Government that highlighted threats to their democratic processes. It noted that half of all advanced democracies holding national elections had their democratic process targeted by cyber threat activity. 

"Different approaches are preferred by certain foreign interference actors, but we cannot expect approaches to remain static," Kitteridge said. "State actors will use multiple methods to achieve their strategic goals."

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

The impact of "perceived or actual foreign interference" in New Zealand could be "potentially serious" Kitteridge said, noting how MPs could be influenced to make decisions based on misinformation. 

She said members of the select committee would be briefed in private about how foreign states could interfere in New Zealand politics by using hacking methods, social media campaigns to spread false information, and influence outcomes through electoral financing. 

Hampton noted how MPs are particularly vulnerable given that they're "required to conduct large amounts of external engagement" and that their "networks must be adaptable and open to accept communication from a wide variety of sources". 

'We did not see any activity'

Hampton confirmed that the GCSB did not pick up on any candidates or political parties being targeted by cyber operations in the 2017 election.

"We did not see any activity like this on behalf of a foreign state," Hampton said. 

However, he noted that the GCSB is aware of "high profile international examples" that "serve as a reminder of the importance of good cyber and information security practices". 

In February last year, the US Special Counsel said in an indictment that a Russian internet agency and more than a dozen Russians interfered in the US election campaign from 2014 through 2016. 

John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's former presidential campaign manager, told Newshub last month that New Zealand's 2020 election would be a "juicy target" for foreign interference. 

Hampton said in the lead up to the 2017 election in New Zealand election, the National Cyber Security Centre, located in the GCSB, "assisted the Electoral Commission to provide cyber security advice to political parties and candidates". 

Justice Select Committee members Maggie Barry and Nick Smith.
Justice Select Committee members Maggie Barry and Nick Smith. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Kitteridge expressed concern over expatriate communities being targeted by state-sponsored manipulation. She said NZSIS is "Aware of efforts by foreign states to covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities". 

And the issue of foreign donations was raised, with Kitteridge saying NZSIS is concerned about them being "used as leverage to facilitate future interference or espionage activity". 

Hampton and Kitteridge said they are both available to speak with MPs about concerns around foreign interference in New Zealand elections, "or about their own personal protective security practise". 

China has been pointed to as a potential threat to New Zealand's democratic processes. The New Zealand Defence Force last year explicitly named China as a threat that challenged international governance values and norms with its "alternative model of democracy". 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rubbished claims made by an Australian current affairs TV show that intelligence pointed to China over the February 2018 burglaries of Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady.

Brady has asked to make a submission to the Justice Select Committee regarding foreign interference in New Zealand elections.