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No election interference found, but foreign political donors concern spies

Thursday 11th April 2019

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New Zealand's principal intelligence agencies have told members of Parliament they saw nothing in the lead-up to the 2017 election that required activating a protocol to respond to threats to the general election.

However, the Security Intelligence Service head Rebecca Kitteridge said the agency had "seen activities by state actors that concern us" in the context of political donations.

She stopped short of naming any particular country in the public part of this morning's hearing of the justice select committee inquiry into the conduct of the 2017 general election, which she addressed with Andrew Hampton, the director-general of the Government Communication Security Bureau, which has responsibility for foreign intelligence-gathering and cyber security.

MPs also received a 'restricted' briefing behind closed doors and were told there was "considerably more information" that the committee could not be told about, but which the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were aware of.

While donations were a "legally sanctioned form of participation in New Zealand politics," Kitteridge said that NZSIS "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.

"Motivated state actors are adept at finding weaknesses or 'grey areas' to help them to covertly build and project influence," said Kitteridge. "Total transparency of the regulatory regimes governing our elections and democracy is the best counter to this."

The identity of political donors is currently only required for donations above $30,000, meaning a donor seeking anonymity need only split a large donation into chunks that fit below the declaration threshold.

National Party MP Nick Smith has already indicated his party's intention to outlaw foreign-sourced political donations at the same time as fellow committee member and former National MP Jami-Lee Ross continues to press his attack on National's leader Simon Bridges over alleged attempts by Chinese interests to both make donations and gain candidate selections for National.

Describing the infiltration of political parties as presenting a "large attack surface" for an adversary because of their need to distribute and accept a large amount of communication from many sources, Hampton said one of the GCSB's "main concerns" for the 2017 election was that "information taken would be disclosed with the intent of influencing the election's outcome.

"We did not see any activity like this on behalf of a foreign state" before or during the 2017 election, he said. But Kitteridge noted a Canadian government report suggesting that "half of all advanced democracies holding national elections had their democratic process targeted by cyber threat activity" last year, a three-fold increase since 2015. 

The spy agencies also noted the growing use of disinformation and 'mal-information' campaigns, although they said "New Zealand has not been the direct target of widespread state-backed disinformation or mal-information campaigns". New Zealanders accessing international websites, however, were likely to be being exposed to such campaigns.

Their report also noted "efforts by foreign states to covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities", including the use of family in the home country as leverage.

While China was not named in the hearing today, monitoring by Chinese government agencies of Chinese students studying in New Zealand is well-known to occur. 

Likewise, foreign language media was another way to influence and mobilise expatriate communities, Kitteridge said. A number of Chinese language newspapers are published in New Zealand funded from China.

Hampton also issued a plea to local governments not to experiment with electronic voting at this year's 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.

Lee-Ross sought to ask Kitteridge and Hampton to comment on what he claimed was a statement to him by Bridges last year that he could not promote an expatriate Chinese New Zealander as a National Party candidate "because the spooks tell me he is a Chinese spy", but the SIS director-general declined to comment.

A Chinese-born National MP since 2011, Jian Yang, was fingered by a Newsroom report in September 2017 as having worked for the People's Liberation Army-Air Force Engineering College and the Luoyang language institute run by China's Third Department, an intelligence-gathering agency.


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