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New Zealand intelligence report accuses China of cyber-enabled interference

New Zealand’s primary national intelligence agency on Friday accused China of “ongoing activity in and against New Zealand” in an unclassified report describing the country’s threat environment.

The 53-page report from the NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) described the Chinese activity as “a complex intelligence concern for New Zealand,” with the agency noting that “groups and individuals” linked to Chinese intelligence were continuing to target New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities.

Three particular states were highlighted in the report — China, Iran and Russia — alongside the warning that “foreign intelligence agencies [are] persistently and opportunistically [conducting] espionage operations against New Zealand both at home and abroad.”

Covert hostile activities have been made “cheaper and easier” by technology, according to NZSIS, allowing “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.”

Earlier this year, Australian researchers found evidence that China is using fake social media accounts linked to transnational criminal groups to spread online propaganda and disinformation.

Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee recently warned that China’s approach to cyber operations was becoming “increasingly sophisticated,” a report coincidentally published on the same day Microsoft announced a Chinese hacking group had exploited a bug in its cloud email service to spy on more than two dozen organizations and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe.

According to the NZSIS, these operations are primarily targeting New Zealand’s government, but the agency warned that broader objectives mean other targets also coming into focus, including corporate entities, research institutions and government contractors.

The range of threats faced by the country and these organizations include “human and cyber-enabled foreign interference and espionage, seeding disinformation, and the use of economic coercion, among other methods,” stated the report.

The information that foreign intelligence agencies are attempting to steal “is increasingly broad,” running from “military capabilities to sensitive intellectual property, or even personal information is being sought in order to gain strategic advantage.”

Andrew Hampton, the agency’s director general of security, said: “Being more open about national security means that as a country we can develop a greater understanding and be better placed to manage risks.”

He warned that competition between states was “becoming more acute” driving some to try and find an advantage for themselves by subversion and spying against New Zealand and the country’s interests.

“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,” added Hampton.

Whakapapa is a Māori concept, loosely meaning ancestry or lineage. Hampton stressed that the distinction between the Chinese state and people in New Zealand with Chinese ethnicities was important: “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.”

Earlier this year, the NZSIS’s acting director-general Phil McKee told parliamentarians in New Zealand that “the most insidious examples” of foreign interference involved the “harassment of ethnic communities in New Zealand who speak out against the actions of a foreign government.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.