New Zealand Joins US, UK, Netherlands Alleging Chinese Cyber Espionage


Five eyes member New Zealand joins with the US and UK alleging it was targeted by China-backed cyberespionage

New Zealand’s security minister confirmed last week that hackers linked to the Chinese government had launched a state-sponsored operation that targeted New Zealand’s Parliament in 2021.

The confirmation came shortly after the United States and United Kingdom last week imposed new sanctions on China after accusing the country of sustaining a cyber-attack campaign lasting more than a decade, that targeted Western officials, journalists, corporations and pro-democracy activists, and the UK’s Electoral Commission.

The National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, also revealed that four British MPs critical of Beijing had been targeted in a separate attack. The four parliamentarians were all part of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and are prominent critics of China.

hacker hacking security data
Image credit: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

NZ allegations

The UK and US both issued criminal charges and sanctions against seven hackers, all believed to be living in China. They also sanctioned a front company linked to the cyber-espionage group APT31, which is associated with the Chinese ministry of state security, over the attacks.

A day after the US, UK allegations, New Zealand also alleged it had been targeted by China-backed cyber espionage.

“The use of cyber-enabled espionage operations to interfere with democratic institutions and processes anywhere is unacceptable,” Judith Collins, the defense minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

Collins reportedly said the agency had also established links between a state-sponsored entity linked to China and malicious cyber activity targeting parliamentary entities in New Zealand.

The bureau’s National Cyber Security Centre “completed a robust technical assessment” following a compromise of the Parliamentary Counsel Office and the Parliamentary Service in 2021, and has attributed this activity to a PRC (China) state-sponsored group known as APT40,” Collins was quoted as saying.

“Fortunately, in this instance, the NCSC worked with the impacted organisations to contain the activity and remove the actor shortly after they were able to access the network,” she added.

Collins said New Zealand will not follow the US and UK in sanctioning China because New Zealand does not have a law allowing such penalties, nor were there plans to introduce legislation.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters confirmed New Zealand’s concerns had been conveyed to Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong, the AP reported.

“Foreign interference of this nature is unacceptable, and we have urged China to refrain from such activity in future,” Peters said in a statement last week. “New Zealand will continue to speak out – consistently and predictably – where we see concerning behaviors like this.”

Chinese response

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian reportedly dismissed the allegations as “typical political manipulation” concocted by the US and UK, with whom it is in conflict over issues including Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and a wide range of trade disputes.

China routinely denies all cyberattack and hacking allegations.

New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, which also includes the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

Last October the heads of Five Eyes intelligence agencies came together to accuse China of intellectual property theft and using AI for hacking.

five eyes hacking security
From left to right: Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security and Chief Executive Andrew Hampton, and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum at the Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, California, on 16 October, 2023. Image credit: FBI

The Netherlands

But it is not just the Five Eyes accusing China of nation-stating hacking activities.

During his state visit to Beijing last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte personally discussed a recent incident of cyber espionage, which the Netherlands directly blamed on the Chinese state, during his talks with President Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi however told Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte last Wednesday that no force can stop the pace of China’s technological progress.

“Creating scientific and technological barriers and severing industrial and supply chains will only lead to division and confrontation,” Xi reportedly said last week.