26 Feb 2020

Foreign interference in Australia 'bound to be true for NZ as well', expert says

8:56 am on 26 February 2020

Australia's domestic spy agency has given a frank and unprecedented account of foreign interference within its borders that national security experts say applies here too.

Late night internet addiction or working late man using laptop computer in the dark

Photo: 123rf

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director-general Michael Burgess says some of the tactics being used against the country "are so sophisticated, they sound like they've sprung from the pages of a Cold War thriller".

In the first of his annual threat assessments, the spy boss talked about a sleeper agent and his spymasters, and scholarly spies infiltrating universities.

Burgess said the level of threat they faced from foreign espionage and interference activities was higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War.

"There are more foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating in Australia now than at the height of the Cold War and many of them have the requisite level of capability; the intent and the persistence to cause significant harm to our national security. But the character and focus of that espionage activity continues to evolve."

He said a foreign intelligence service's 'sleeper' agent lay dormant in the country for years, before feeding his spymasters information about Australia-based expatriate dissidents, leading to them and their families being harassed.

"In exchange for significant cash payments, the agent also provided on-the-ground logistical support for spies who travelled to Australia to conduct intelligence activities.

"These are the sort of insidious activities ASIO works to detect and disrupt every day. And in the case of the sleeper agent, I can confirm ASIO did disrupt the operation. Regardless, the threat is real and the threat is extremely serious."

New Zealand-based security analyst Paul Buchanan said it would be a similar story here.

"Everything that ASIO has said about these foreign espionage intelligence gathering and influence activities is bound to be true for NZ as well. NZ will have a microcosmic version of what the Australian's are talking about so we should be on our guard," he said.

He said it appeared to be that Australia's main concern, like New Zealand's, was foreign interference from China.

Australia's spy boss sounded the alarm over visiting scientists and academics ingratiating themselves into university life with the aim of secretly collecting intelligence.

He said this struck at the heart of the nation's notions of free and fair academic exchange.

Dr Buchanan said he was concerned New Zealand's universities did not appear to be vetting foreign researchers or scientists or students.

"What's alarming for New Zealand ... there appears to be no vetting of the [foreign] researchers or scientists who are coming to these shores but also the students who are admitted," he said.

"These sort of activities that is scientists coming to engage in intellectual property theft or people coming to keep an eye on dissident populations in the university communities, those things do not seem to be on the radar scope of higher education authorities."

Auckland University of Technology vice-chancellor Derek McCormack chairs University New Zealand - a committee representing the country's eight universities.

He said the country's security agencies meet with the committee each year to discuss security issues relating to students or research.

"They have their own monitoring that they do, they will approach universities about specific cases if they're concerned and they ask us to watch out for certain things."

McCormack said it was not the responsibility of universities' to check national security issues with every student or staff member, but rather the government agencies' job.

"They have been set up by our government to protect us and our nation from security risks of the kind that are being talked about, and it is therefore their job to help us to deal with those. It's not our job to set ourselves up as a quasi national security agency."

Two years ago, it was reported New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service (SIS) investigated a Chinese national studying for PhD in electronic engineering over concerns his work could be used for sensitive military purposes.

Earlier this month, the heads of the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee for their annual review.

They highlighted an increase in tip-offs from the public about extremist views, and an increase in the severity of cyber security incidents on New Zealand's nationally significant organisations, by sophisticated state-sponsored actors.

Dr Buchanan said knowing these threats, New Zealand needed to discuss what kind of society it wanted to be in a few decades.

"Larger powers, mostly run by authoritarian regimes, have realised that if they engage in these influence operations, even if there are subtle shifts in their target country, they can pursue their interests. It's an undermine from within strategy."

The SIS is expected to publish the first of what will become an annual unclassified report on security threats in July.

The Australian government also recently announced they were setting up a Counter Foreign Interference Task Force. Burgess in his report outlined the task force "will become a vital element of our strategy to defeat this threat".

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