Pacific data insecurity: Lewis Johnson comments on a hidden hole in New Zealand's regional development outlook.

AuthorJohnson, Lewis

As international society becomes more digitally connected and technologically innovative, the competition to collect larger amounts of quality data, and analyse it more quickly and effectively is increasingly determining the success of modern-day decision-makers. (1)

The national security risks of malicious big data analytics are growing increasingly pertinent to global democracies. Techniques such as psychometric profiling and algorithmically generated news, among others, have influenced public sentiment in democratic decisions such as the 2016 US presidential election, the UK Brexit campaign and at least 30 other democratic elections worldwide. (2) However, despite the known risks involved in the continual influx of data production and associated analysis techniques utilised by foreign governments and political consultancy firms, there has not been a corresponding increase in strategic policy discussions on how New Zealand should best assist Pacific Islands nations in mitigating such actions.

The growing geopolitical and geostrategic importance of the region and the Pacific's overwhelming vulnerability in cyberspace is not reflected in New Zealand's foreign and defence policy. Currently, New Zealand is failing to appropriately comprehend either the destabilising potential foreign interference methodologies can have in the region or the critical importance data protection and privacy legislation play in mitigating this threat.

This article seeks to illustrate the vulnerability of Pacific Islands to foreign interference in the context of rising internet proliferation, data production and geopolitical tension in the region. It then examines the relationship between data and foreign interference, critiquing international responses to the issue before finally discussing how New Zealand can better assist the Pacific in creating effective and contextually appropriate solutions to mitigating it.

The controversial Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 clearly unravelled the relationship between personal data exploitation, foreign interference and national security. The British political consulting firm (previously SCL Elections) utilised sophisticated big data analytics methodologies to create various psychological profiling models from data obtained from more than 50 million unique social media accounts on the Facebook platform. The firm marketed to political campaign leaders its ability to psycho-graphically target social media users with targeted content as a means to win the hearts and minds of voters with a view to intentionally altering their behaviour. It utilised its methodologies in more than 30 democratic elections internationally. (3)

Different methods

While foreign interference can encompass a variety of different methods, including hacking, donations, lobbying, disinformation, advertising and media usage in diaspora communities, among many others, (4) a lesser-known trend is the increasing usage by malicious governments for geopolitical gain of exploitative methodologies like those employed by Cambridge Analytica. Conducting state-sanctioned assaults on democratic processes, or systematically monitoring citizen data through dataveillance operations to govern their behaviour, are some tactics used by foreign governments seeking to rearrange the distribution of international power.

Scholars point to China as an emerging leader in this field. The Chinese are capitalising on the relationship domestic state-owned enterprises and tech companies have with foreign partners to cultivate a global data collection ecosystem. (5) President Xi Jinping has articulated the Chinese Communist Party's intention to manipulate and coerce public opinion with a view to defend and project its power on an international scale. Through his concept of 'Community of Common Destiny for Mankind', he seeks to reduce political, ideological and cultural threats internationally in cyberspace through a process Samantha Hoffman considers a form of international social management.

Rapid innovations in artificial intelligence processing and big data analytics methodologies similar to those used by the SCL group are enabling the CCP to build digital tools that can be deployed beside Chinese information and communication technology development projects in an effort to expand, bend and control a growing international sphere of digital influence to favour the CCP's security interests.

Data scraping

The China Electronic Information Industry Group (CIIG) is one Chinese state-owned enterprise seeking to reduce these threats. Using methods such as 'data scraping' from opensource material, the dark web and confidential records, (6) an information leak from a CIIG subsidiary, Zhenhua Data, was found to have contained sensitive details from more than 2 million people, at least 800 of whom were New Zealand politicians, Defence officials and their families. (7) Academics assert that analysis of sensitive data can help foreign actors identify compromising opportunities in key individuals which can be used to either 'blackmail ... nurture or cultivate them', (8) with some analysts warning that the CIIG database and analytical tools available to the state-owned enterprise are essentially a 'Cambridge Analytica on Steroids'. (9)

Notwithstanding Chinese state-owned enterprises, even private Chinese companies pose a geopolitical risk to internationally produced strategic data. According to Article 19 of China's Company Law, all Chinese technology companies must establish CCP political committees within the company's administration 'to carry out the activities of the party in accordance with the charter of the Communist Party of China'...

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