State of Threat reviewed in Waiheke Weekender


Jenny Nicholls reviews State of Threat: The challenges to Aotearoa New Zealand's national security edited by Wil Hoverd and Deidre Ann McDonald in the Waiheke Weekender:

‘“Since 2018 our threat environment has changed from benign to threatening,” write the editors in their introduction to 17 academic but eyebrow-raising assessments of all the Very Bad Things lurking about Aotearoa like crocodiles in a swimming pool.

Rapid geo-political shifts in power often result in war, Waikato Uni’s Dr. Reuben Steff warns in his essay about US-China competition. Steff, one of the book’s 23 experts, thinks that conflict in the Pacific “is no longer inconceivable.”

The events of the last few months show just how quickly things can change – if this collection of essays was published this week instead of last November, ‘Israel’ would surely have rated a mention in the index.

The last few months have bought calamity to the Middle East, and fresh disruptions to New Zealand supply chains and maritime trade. Along with all the big, obvious dangers and disruptions, like climate change, the drug trade and US/China dynamics, State of Threat alerts us to the potential dangers few of us think about – like the vulnerability of our submarine cables. New Zealand’s internet capability, including banking, emailing, social media and streaming services depend on kilometres of submerged copper and fibre optic cables which can be deliberately snipped, blown up, hacked or bugged; accidentally snagged by fishing boat; or wrecked by natural disaster. The January 2022 eruption in Tonga shredded 80 kilometres of submarine cables; it took two weeks just to get a repair ship to the right place.

And here’s another thing – how do we fight biosecurity hazards, racist terrorists or drug cartels without uncomfortably high levels of surveillance? How much democratic oversight and accountability should we demand from our spooks? And what about AI? New Zealand scientists are already using it for predictive disease models and IDing marine species by sound. Although this sounds like a good thing, analysts Jodie Chapell and Deidre McDonald warn against the temptation to depend on ‘less supervised’ forms of data collection. Their chapter is titled Does AI Dream of Protecting Sheep?

Another chapter explores the threat represented by digital currencies, when used in cyberattacks. Disruptive, in a bad way.

If some of these concepts begin to swim before our eyes like so many horror movie elevator pitches, the book is, overall, a fascinating overview of another world. It reminds us that government surveillance needs to go both ways; analysis aimed at ministerial desks (and filing cabinets) needs all the transparency it can get.

Two curious omissions, in an academic book considering government accountability, are threats to journalism, and to academic freedom. Both are critical to our democracy; both can operate as critical checks on abuses of power by government and business. But today, investigative journalism for example, is becoming too expensive for legacy media to afford.

Chapters on defence, diplomacy, intelligence, policy, trade and border management all identify threats to our environment and way of life. But as multinational digital platforms destroy the media business model, and universities hemorrhage research staff, the risk posed by news deserts and the lack of New Zealand-based expertise might also have been worth a look.’