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New Zealand’s spy agencies say criminals and “hostile actors” are exploiting coronavirus concerns and could target employees working remotely.

The National Cyber Security Centre has issued new guidance on remote working, advising companies to secure remote access systems and workers to be security conscious, especially when working at home or in public places.

Employees working away from the office due to Covid-19 concerns could face new risks from cyberattackers, intelligence agencies warn.

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Employees working away from the office due to Covid-19 concerns could face new risks from cyberattackers, intelligence agencies warn.

“The NCSC has observed an increase in malicious cyber activity seeking to exploit public concern surrounding Covid-19,” the centre added.

And the usually taciturn New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) outlined its role on Wednesday in fighting coronavirus. 

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The community, including Government security agencies SIS and GCSB, confirmed to Stuff it was not monitoring anyone with Covid-19 or anybody self-isolating.

Israel’s use of its intelligence agency Shin Bet to track people potentially violating Covid-19 self-isolation guidelines in the country has been controversial this week.

The NZIC said it was busy providing information and assessments to the Government about the international context of Covid-19.

Its other priorities were business continuity planning and the cybersecurity remote-working advice.

The NZIC said its agencies must act in accordance with the Intelligence and Security Act 2017, and the Government’s National Security and Intelligence Priorities.

The intelligence act outlined rules around relevant issues including surveillance warrants, and about how to protect New Zealand’s national security, international relations and economic well-being.

The national security priorities as of December 2018 included 16 areas of concern, including biosecurity and human health, as well as terrorism and espionage.

Defence and security analyst Dr Paul Buchanan said there was little point in the SIS getting involved in monitoring people at risk of violating self-isolation guidance.

Buchanan, of 36th Parallel Assessments, said the SIS already had espionage and counter-intelligence duties.

“They would have to take an undercover officer off, pull them off some other job, let’s say monitoring Chinese spies, and put them on the case of some miscreant who refuses to self-quarantine.”

He said the GCSB signals intelligence agency had the means to track people likely to breach coronavirus precautions.

But by law the GCSB needed a so-called type 1 warrant to track communications of New Zealand citizens.

Buchanan said the agency only requested 16 type-2 warrants from June 2019 to last month, and many were probably directed at far-Right extremists after the Christchurch mosque shootings.

He said In contrast, thousands of people had recently entered New Zealand from overseas.

But Buchanan said emergency legislation could conceivably allow the GCSB to spy on many more people, and do so using algorithms to intercept the communications from as soon as visitors arrived in New Zealand.

Buchanan said in the long run, the potentially greater Covid-19 danger came from “defiant” or complacent Kiwis who refused to follow social distancing practices.

He said military facilities, empty dormitories and refugee resettlement centres could be used to quarantine people in an extreme scenario.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said online scams, as well as cyberbullying and abuse, are expected to rise amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“Reports from around the world indicate there has been an increase in abuse and harassment online due to COVID-19.”

Xenophobic abuse and social media pile-ons were among incidents reported by Kiwis.

Meanwhile, scammers had set up fake websites to sell medical-grade masks, and were sending emails and texts supposedly from the World Health and claiming to “cure” COVID-19 with teas and oils, he said.

“Often these types of emails use a very similar domain name extension [to the real organisation] that is easy to be confused by.”

Cocker urged New Zealanders to source information about coronavirus from the Ministry of Health website rather than social media.

Key information: Sign up to get Stuff’s daily coronavirus situation report email newsletter. It’s a quick summary of the essential updates from New Zealand and around the world on Covid-19.



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