NZSIS top spy Rebecca Kitteridge tells group of powerful MPs there's 'no doubt' white supremacy is on the rise

New Zealand's top spy has told a group of powerful MPs - including the Prime Minister - there is "no doubt" that white supremacy extremism is on the rise. 

NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge spoke on Wednesday at an annual review of the agency, chaired by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and with members including Opposition leader Judith Collins. 

"There's no doubt that we are seeing an increase in white identity extremism in New Zealand and around the world. That is an unfortunate international trend," Kitteridge told the Intelligence and Security Committee. 

"It's not just that type of ideology, but actually, we see a kind of proliferation of different conspiracy theories and a whole range of different ideologies, all of which we need to be open to detecting and investigating."

In December, the independent royal commission of inquiry into the 2019 Christchurch terror attack found the concentration of counter-terrorism resources on Islamist terrorism was "inappropriate" and not enough was going into white supremacist threats. 

Kitteridge said the NZSIS has been "thinking hard" about how to engage more with the Muslim community since the findings and that counter-terrorism is now split approximately 50/50 across white supremacist extremism and faith-motivated violent extremism.

Earlier this month police received a tip-off about a threat to attack two Christchurch mosques on the anniversary of the 2019 terror attack. It raised questions about what involvement security agencies had and whether they had been monitoring online threats sufficiently. 

NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge.
NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo credit: Newshub

"Part of our strategy is ensuring we are scanning and scoping as widely as possible on violent extremism, whatever the ideology," Kitteridge told the committee, discussing the complex nature of identifying national security threats. 

"You've got often loose associations - there are some associations that are quite tightly controlled but others that are just people connected through the internet that don't even know one another's identities but are still sharing quite radical kinds of ideas."

Kitteridge said the NZSIS relies on receiving information from many sources. 

"We continue to value information provided by the public. Public information has always been, and will remain, crucial to alerting us to issues of concern and providing us with leads," she said. 

"We can also generate our own leads, by accessing information networks and data holdings beyond our own to ensure we can see as many dots as possible and discover unknown threats."

But Kitteridge said that's not to say the NZSIS monitors the entire internet. 

"New Zealand's intelligence agencies have neither the legal mandate nor social licence for mass surveillance, and nor should we in a liberal democracy like New Zealand," she said. 

"Unlike the public, the tools we use are subject to careful controls. Our work must be targeted, necessary and proportionate, and comply with the law. We need to take into account ethical, privacy and human rights considerations."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which Opposition leader Judith Collins is a member.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which Opposition leader Judith Collins is a member. Photo credit: Newshub

She emphasised that the NZSIS is not conducting mass surveillance and is also not focused on identifying hate speech online. 

"Our specific area of interest and investigation is violent extremism or terrorism, where people are mobilising to violence in a way that is ideologically driven. So it is quite specific and I sometimes think there is a misunderstanding in the public domain about the breadth of our activity."

Kitteridge said intelligence sharing with allies - particularly the Five Eyes group including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and United States - is very useful for New Zealand. 

"The Five Eyes partnership is incredibly important to NZSIS in terms of the New Zealand intelligence community generally. NZSIS receives a lot of leads about a whole range of national security threats from partners," she said. 

"But I would also add that it's not just that partnership - we also have relationships with a range of other security intelligence agencies around the world including in Europe, Scandinavia and southeast Asia."

Kitteridge said foreign interference and espionage remain a real threat for New Zealand. 

"We have increasingly observed states seeking to gain access to sensitive Government and commercial information, as well as valuable intellectual property. Where we have become aware of foreign interference or espionage, we have worked actively to mitigate that activity, with some real success."

But after telling MPs in 2019 that New Zealand was at risk of foreign interference in elections, Kitteridge said she was pleased to confirm the NZSIS did not detect any significant state-driven interference in last year's election.