17 Sep 2020

Zhenhua Data collection 'disquieting in the extreme' - Winston Peters

9:53 am on 17 September 2020

Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters says the collection of information on New Zealanders by a Chinese company could affect national security.

Winston Peters in Wairoa during his 2020 election campaigning. 14 September 2020

Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Details of hundreds of New Zealanders - politicians, judges, business leaders, journalists and even criminals - have been collected by Chinese company Zhenhua, which has been linked to the country's military and intelligence.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said it would be "naive" to think there was no connection with the Chinese state.

"The part that is of concern is, what is the purpose in this case of this collection of data. I know why big businesses do it - it is to shape their market it is to look at influencers and all sorts of things.

"In this case, I think people would be asking why is a country doing it, and what is its ultimate purpose."

"If you look at the big picture, and put aside the players here, of course it has an influence on national security.

"And of course it will reflect on those who are most susceptible, naive or otherwise, to selling the interests of the country down the drain.

"That's what it's always been about."

Peters said the nature of the system was that every company in China had a Communist Party interest in it.

Asked if the data collection was being done at behest of Chinese state, Peters said it was "naive to think otherwise".

"There is not a level of disconnect or independence between the two systems. No-one makes a step of this sort unless it is sanctioned by Beijing." This also happened in other countries, and with big business, he said.

"It is very disquieting in the extreme that the collection of information is being sought, not for what you might call a marketing purpose or to sell product, but the purpose is perhaps to find information that can be used in a future time to persuade a certain outcome from individuals associated with the person that has been the source of the information collection."

The Security Intelligence Service (SIS) is reviewing the data leak for any potential risks and security concerns, but director Rebecca Kitteridge said it seemed the information collected had primarily been drawn from the public domain.

Kitteridge said the leak was a timely reminder for people to check their security settings and consider the amount of information they share on the internet.

Peters echoed the message. "People should be warned when they go online and engage in social media and divulge their personal information it can be used or misused against them or people close to them or contacts they might have," he said.

"If you look at some of the international events where actors have been involved in manipulating political outcomes, and manipulating a stance a country might take with respect to another one, they are very, very serious."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the data leak, which includes the names of her mother, father and sister, highlighted the need for vigilance on cybersecurity. She was reluctant to comment on security matters however.

Technology commentator Paul Brislen said the data collection was more like "business as usual" in "building a dossier on people you might want to talk to or engage with at some point, using publicly available sources".

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs