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Does New Zealand have a chief information security officer?

By Jonathan Cotton, Wed 27 Oct 2021

Every business needs someone who’s ultimately responsible for that organisation’s information security - someone to oversee the integrity of the operation's computer systems, to offer advice, maintain procedures and policies, and to make sure that internal systems are protected from external threats as well as possible.   

So what’s the equivalent role in the government? Who holds it? And how does the position help protect New Zealand’s digital integrity? 

In New Zealand, that role is the Government Chief Information Security Officer (GCISO) position, the purpose of which is to help the government make better decisions about information security, and support improvements to its security practices. 

At an agency level, the GCSB (the Government Communications Security Bureau) plays a pivotal leadership role in information security. Within that organisation is the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), and that’s the heart of New Zealand’s cyber defence capabilities. 

The NCSC helps government agencies and organisations of national significance protect their IT systems against cyber-borne threats that are “typically beyond the capability of commercially available products and services”. 

Simply put, in the event of a potentially high impact cyber security incident, it's the NCSC that helps organisations evict malicious cyber actors from their networks, restore services, and recover.

It’s also the NCSC - and by extension the GCSB - that assists the government in delivering major events such as the general election, the COVID-19 vaccination roll out, and the digital hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic (APEC) forum securely. 


So who holds the position?

The GCISO position is currently held by the Director-General of the GCSB, Andrew Hampton. He has headed the GCSB since 2016 and was conferred the GCISO role in 2018. 

Hampton comes from a government background, with experience across the justice sector, having held positions such as Director of the Office of Treaty Settlements, Deputy Secretary for Courts and Deputy Chief Executive at the Crown Law Office. 

As GCISO, he reports directly to Hon Andrew Little (the minister responsible for the GCSB, and the NZSIS, New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service). 

“I think when I was appointed they were looking for someone who had some experience at working in government and I’d worked in government for about 20 years,” says Hampton. 

“An agency like ours, some of our work, by necessity, needs to occur in secret. But if we are too secret, and aren’t out there talking publicly about the nature of the threats that the country faces, our role, and how we help to mitigate those threats, there's a real risk that the public will become suspicious or concerned about an agency like this.”

“So you need someone who can help maintain the social license that an organisation like ours needs to in order to operate.”

“Before I came to this role, the Bureau was doing fantastic work every day to help protect New Zealand and New Zealand's interests. But it was never really talked about.”


What are the GCISO’s key accountabilities? 

Generally speaking, the purpose of the GCISO role is to support the coordination of the government’s information security approach, identify systemic risks and vulnerabilities therein, and improve coordination between ICT operations and security roles. 

Also part of the mandate is the establishment of minimum infosec standards and expectations, and improving support to the different agencies charged with managing complex information security challenges.

“The role was created to enable a better integrated and more proactive and strategic approach to information security across public service agencies,” says Hampton. 

“While responsibility for running IT across individual agencies still ultimately sits with those chief executives, it was recognized that there was a need for a single source of truth and leadership around information security.”

At its simplest, the GCISO function is largely about providing leadership, guidance, coordination and identifying what strategic interventions might give New Zealand’s information security systems the biggest uplift.

One of the NCSC’s responsibilities is producing and maintaining the New Zealand Information Security Manual (NZISM), which outlines both best practices and mandatory requirements for government agencies. 


Recent wins

Hampton’s department has been working with the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) to help build better security into the government's thinking around digital transformation and to improve the types of digital products that the DIA offers. 

Recent wins include partnerships with Microsoft and Amazon Web Services to develop new security baseline templates - tools that let government agencies implement services from Microsoft and Amazon cloud service and products in a way that meets the requirements under the NZISM. 

“It gives agencies some certainty that these products can be implemented and managed in a way that both aligns with the mandatory requirements that are set out in the NZISM, but just as importantly, they can manage them in a way that maximises the security on offer.”

From a technology perspective, the New Zealand public service has a fairly permissive and distributed approach to IT, and agencies are expected to be responsible for their own tech systems. 

“That diversity has some benefits, but it also presents quite a lot of challenges from a security perspective,” says Hampton. “That's why we are trying to drive system level interventions, building-in security at the front end, as a way in which we can help support those agencies to respond.”

The NCSC is launching its Malware Free Networks (MFN) service, a threat detection and disruption service that provides almost real-time threat intelligence reflecting current malicious activity targeting New Zealand organisations. 

The curated threat intelligence feed is drawn from a range of sources, including international cyber security partners. The NCSC has worked with several ISPs and cyber security providers to enable them to make MFN available to their customers.

“Malware Free Networks builds on our CORTEX detection and disruption service,” says Hampton. “We’re partnering with ISPs and MSPs so they can use a curated threat feed from us to help protect their customers,” says Hampton. 

“Many of their customers are public sector organisations, so it makes sense for the GCISO role to help agencies tighten up those types of services.”


In the event of an emergency 

So what role does the NCSC play when a cyber-attack happens?  

Simply put, threat information, the forensics, managing the interface between the private and public sector, and communication advice. 

“It's all very well to point out what the gap is, but it's also about how you actually respond to those threats and vulnerabilities,” says Hampton.

“Firstly, what we bring to the party is access to classified information,” he says. “We are very good at forensics. We're very good at understanding who the threat actor is, so that’s one thing that we bring to the party”. 

Coordination plays a big part, providing a public-facing interface to other parts of government for organisations under attack, as well as advice on strategic communication functions when the worst happens. 

“Often when you're dealing with a cyber incident, communication is really key,” says Hampton. 

“We know that if we're talking about something like ransomware or DDoS attacks, chances are that the malicious actor is going to be looking at the media to see whether they're having any effect or not, so being able to give organisations advice on how to fulfill their obligations to their stakeholders and others, but also communicate that in a way that doesn't make them even more of a target is important.”


The changing threatscape

Information security being what it is, it's a game with ever-shifting goalposts for organisations like the GCSB and the NCSC. 

“We're now seeing capabilities that previously were the preserve of state actors, increasingly in the hands of non-state actors, and indeed, you’re now seeing a blurring of the lines between who is a state actor and who's not,” says Hampton.

The tools and capabilities that ransomware actors use are now available for hire, he says, something we haven't seen before.

“Whereas before you needed to have quite a high level of capability to undertake these types of attacks, now, if you've got enough bitcoin and a safehaven to operate out of, you're able to undertake attacks that wouldn’t be possible even just a few years ago.”

Making matters worse, the increasing popularity of online, third-party services - both within and outside government - has created a security gap, in which information security is lost during the outsourcing process.

“Malicious actors have clicked onto the idea that supply chains present really good opportunities for malicious activity,” says Hampton. 

Case in point, last year’s SolarWinds attack - now attributed by the New Zealand government and others to the Russian state - a compromise of a service supplier’s update which affected thousands of organisations around the world. 

“A real focus for us is getting organisations to think about their networks, not just in terms of their own organisation, but everyone else they depend on.”

“It’s important to recognise that even if you’re doing all the right stuff,  you still may be subject to a compromise, and therefore the incident response preparation is just as important.” 

Hampton says that it's heartening to see significant increases in cyber security awareness in New Zealand, especially from leadership. 

“I think it's really, really positive, but I also think that there is still quite a range in the maturity of different organisations around cyber security.”

The high number of legacy systems and the degree to which old IT is still being used across both the public and private sector however presents a challenge, says Hampton.

“Organisations constantly need to be reviewing their own policies, their own operating systems, to keep up with the threat environment and also how their own networks may be changing. And some organisations are better at doing that than others.”

“So much of what we do as an agency is not just using the tools and products and partners that we have got, it's actually about getting out there and working with organisations to share information on what they need to do to build their own resilience.”

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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