Disasters, Hackers and Disinformation: Experts Predict National Security Risks

He Whenua Taurikura Hui: Annual meeting of anti-terrorism talks since the mosque attacks. Video / Provided

Natural disasters and the intentional dissemination of harmful information are considered New Zealand’s highest national security risks, according to a landmark news outlet.

He warns that the country’s increasingly divided and aging population could become even more vulnerable to extremist ideologies, online attacks by malign foreign actors and the negative impacts of war and climate change – if efforts to educate Kiwis and strengthening New Zealand’s defenses are not prosecuted.

It also includes what is seen as a startling finding that New Zealanders feel particularly at risk of a cyberattack – something the briefing acknowledges the government cannot adequately protect its citizens from.

The document, titled National Security Long-term Insights Briefing, will be discussed at a conference on countering terrorism and violent extremism in Auckland this week.

The briefing, the first of its kind, was produced by nine government agencies and interviewed 1,000 people to test the nation’s mood regarding the perceived risk of various national security threats.

“Publishing this briefing is an opportunity to speak openly about the most significant threats New Zealanders are concerned about over the next decade and the work we are doing to combat or prepare for those risks,” the First said yesterday. Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Respondents were asked how real they thought the threat was from 16 different types of incidents in New Zealand over the next 12 months or 10 years.

Unsurprisingly, respondents considered the risk of a natural disaster to be the highest – 87% believed a natural disaster would hit New Zealand in the next 12 months and 91% believed it would occur. in the next 10 years.

It was significantly higher than the level of concern felt in other countries, 69% on average.

“It is not surprising that New Zealanders feel concerned about natural disasters, given our vulnerability to events such as earthquakes, floods, droughts and volcanic activity,” the briefing said.

The earthquakes that struck Christchurch more than 10 years ago reminded Kiwis how vulnerable New Zealand is to a natural disaster.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
The earthquakes that struck Christchurch more than 10 years ago reminded Kiwis how vulnerable New Zealand is to a natural disaster. Photo/Mark Mitchell

He acknowledged the threat-level surprise New Zealanders felt from the hacking of featured information systems, ranking third behind misinformation (including misinformation).

“What is particularly interesting in the context of this briefing is the level of concern about threats caused by people or countries who want to harm us (often called “malicious actors”), such as hacking (attacks by cybercriminals and country-backed malicious actors who steal, expose, alter, disable or destroy information through unauthorized access to computer systems), or organized crime (illegal activity across national borders).’

Eighty-one percent of respondents felt the risk was high in the next 12 months, 77% in the next 10 years, compared to 75% in other countries.

Looking to the next 10 to 15 years, the authors identified four global trends that would influence the most significant national security risks:

  1. Growing competition between countries and ‘continuing deterioration’ of rules-based international order
  2. Technological change
  3. Climate change
  4. The ongoing effects of Covid-19 and future pandemics.
The continued impact of Covid-19 and the threat of future pandemics figured prominently in the briefing.  Photo / Provided
The continued impact of Covid-19 and the threat of future pandemics figured prominently in the briefing. Photo / Provided

Given these trends, the briefing noted that New Zealand’s population 15 years from now would be older, more diverse and more urban, meaning there was a need to rethink how security threats were dealt with.

“We believe we need to respond to this development by changing the way we engage with New Zealanders to encourage more inclusive and representative participation.”

The briefing contained three hypothetical outcomes that predicted how national security risks might evolve.

In a scenario called “continuing decline”, the authors described a growing risk of war as “the rise of nationalism permeates the international landscape” and competition for resources increases the risk of direct conflict.

“A deterioration in the global order means that transnational organized crime thrives, including online, and some states are more brazen in their willingness to interfere and disrupt our way of life – including through cyberattacks and spying,” he said.

The authors pointed out that New Zealand’s older population would be more vulnerable to extremism and misinformation.

“There is little shared public understanding of the challenges we face in New Zealand, and in the context of an aging population, cycles of inequality and workforce automation, some will be particularly susceptible to extremist ideologies being disseminated online and shaped by mis[information] and misinformation.

Under “dramatic decline,” the authors offered a scenario where conflict in Europe continued, particularly in Ukraine, as other countries joined the war with an “ever-present threat” that nuclear weapons might be used.

The storyline also included Indo-Pacific conflict, citing tensions between China and Taiwan, and accelerating weather events that have led countries to compete head-to-head for resources while in New Zealand, threats to the national security have increased.

“A lack of resources, information sharing and the spread of sophisticated technological errors[information] and misinformation makes it hard for people to tell fiction from reality.

“New Zealand is more polarized than ever, trust in state institutions is diminished, threatening the foundations of our liberal democracy.”

The researchers included a third “optimistic and improving” option, in which countries had “strong momentum” to address global challenges related to climate change and national security threats.

“Greater transparency, open and accessible information sharing, engagement, and partnership between government and the public increase trust, confidence, and social acceptance to address national security challenges.”

The researchers profiled six individual national security risks that New Zealand faces:

  1. Disinformation
  2. Hacking and cyberattacks
  3. Transnational organized crime
  4. Foreign interference and espionage
  5. Terrorism and violent extremism
  6. Pacific Resilience Challenges

Of particular concern was misinformation, meaning false or altered information knowingly and deliberately shared to cause harm, leading to “radicalization and violence” in some cases.

The briefing highlighted the high risk posed by misinformation and how it could take the form of sophisticated and well-funded campaigns to spread “false or misleading information”.

A series of deepfake videos, where actor Miles Fisher impersonated Tom Cruise, surfaced online last year.  Photo/TikTok
A series of deepfake videos, where actor Miles Fisher impersonated Tom Cruise, surfaced online last year. Photo/TikTok

A recent example from New Zealand was cited – after December last year Microsoft reported that Kiwis had been subjected to a spike in exposure to Russian misinformation, much of it related to Covid-19 .

“This spike preceded an increase in protests against Covid-19 measures and other issues in New Zealand.”

An increase in the prevalence and sophistication of misinformation was expected, alongside the ability for countries to deliberately encourage division in New Zealand. New technologies, such as deepfakes, could undermine trust in information.

The briefing called for increased efforts to detect disinformation campaigns and call those responsible.

Regarding cyberattacks, the report refers to four high-profile cyberattacks against the New Zealand Stock Exchange, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Waikato District Health Board and a $30 million hack on a New Zealand-based cryptocurrency exchange. Christchurch.

In 2020/2021, the New Zealand Government’s Office of Communications Security recorded 404 attacks on “organisations of national importance”, a 15% increase on the previous year. The GCSB’s defenses against attacks were estimated to have averted nearly $200 million in damage.

The report acknowledged that the government does not have “all the tools” to protect New Zealand from cyberattacks.

“Businesses and individuals will need to become more security conscious and take an active role in protecting themselves against cyberattacks.”

The adaptation and sophistication of transnational organized crime was also anticipated, deepening the hooks of groups in New Zealand’s deprived communities.

Enabled by changing technologies, foreign interference would become increasingly difficult to prevent and there would be a greater risk of countries pursuing their goals in secret.

With 80% of respondents expecting a terrorist attack in the next 10 years, the report said a growing spread of hate would contribute to more terrorist threats and increasingly diverse extremist ideologies.

Looking ahead to the next 10 to 15 years, the report compiled data indicating that Kiwis felt that New Zealand’s national security agencies lacked transparency and accessibility, which hindered education about threats.

The briefing concluded with a call to make information more accessible to the public, strengthen political leadership on national security, foster international partnerships, diversify the national security sector and strengthen media coverage on the subject, among others.

Comments on the briefing could be provided on the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministry website.

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