Spy boss Andrew Hampton opens up on changes to the GCSB on his watch

After six years as a spy boss, Andrew Hampton talks to Audrey Young about the changes at the GCSB, Five Eyes, the treaty, cancer, and Johnny English.

The man transforming New Zealand’s foreign-focused spy agency, the GCSB, is apparently more Johnny English than James Bond -and that comes from the top spy himself, the very serious Andrew Hampton.

Hampton mislaid his phone on an overseas trip, not a good start for a spy boss, and asked to borrow the phone of a staff member travelling with him so he could ring it and see if it was nearby.

That’s when Hampton saw that the colleague’s code name for him was Johnny English.

Needless to say that Hampton would not be telling the story against himself unless he found it highly amusing to be compared to the spoof-spy made famous by Rowan Atkinson’s pratfalls – but who always turns out to be the unlikely hero.

But the comparison is not entirely fair. Hampton’s agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, deals with signals intelligence, specialising in sophisticated hardware to monitor communications or prevent cyber attacks, not to be confused with the martini-sipping, gun-toting variety of spies.

The GCSB has undergone big changes in the six years that Hampton has been there, an appointment made in the wake of a damning review of its systems and compliance regime.

Change is evident from the regular public outings of himself and Rebecca Kitteridge, the head of sister agency the Security Intelligence Service, speaking at conferences, to parliamentary committees or to journalists.

There is a big emphasis on the expanding diversity of their workforces in a bid to create an inclusive and happy workplace and to better recognise and respond to threats to national security.

The diversity doesn’t relate just to gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Talking to MPs two weeks ago on the Intelligence and Security Committee, Hampton said they were also looking for people with neurological diversity.

“We are just after people who think about problems in a different way,” he told the Herald in an interview which takes place in Defence House, a few blocks away from his own office.

“The biggest risk with an intelligence agency is group think. You get a bunch of people who look at the same problem in the same way and come up with the same solution.

“We are wanting people who either through their life experience, through the types of education they’ve had or just through how their brains are wired will look at things differently and challenge us differently.”

The intelligence agencies, which share administration, also run courses in the Treaty of Waitangi and te reo Māori and have just appointed a chief Māori capability adviser.

Hampton said public servants who worked for the agency needed to understand they were part of the Crown, and with that went some obligations.

“Iwi, hapu and Māori are an important customer set for our agency as well,” he said.

“They are citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand and are as entitled to our protection as anyone else but also in areas like cyber security, for example, they are holders of significant information and significant wealth. We have a role in helping to protect them.”

Hampton’s first job in the public service was in 1995 as a policy adviser with the Māori development ministry, Te Puni Kokiri.

Sir Wira Gardiner, who died this month, was his first boss.

It was in the final days of the consultation hui run by Gardiner over the Government’s $1 billion fiscal envelope proposal for Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

“On my first day of work, there was an effigy of him being burned outside the building so I knew I had joined an interesting place then.”

“He was high energy. He was always on the go,” said Hampton. “He understood what it meant to be a public servant but obviously he lived that tension between being a public servant and being Māori as well – having to work both sides of that Treaty relationship.”

Hampton next went to the Office of Treaty Settlements, which was being run by Belinda Clark, and he stayed there for eight years, rising to director. Clark, who was Secretary for Justice by then, told him he needed to expand his horizons.

He then worked in a different part of the justice sector as manager for the higher courts and deputy chief executive of Crown Law.

He worked for a while at the Ministry of Education, after having been approached by the State Services Commission to help out new secretary Lesley Longstone at the time of the Novopay crisis and Christchurch school closures.

“The day after I turned up, Lesley resigned.”

Peter Hughes, now Hampton’s boss as Public Service Commissioner, replaced Longstone and Hampton worked in his office for a couple of years. He then spent about six years working in various “change projects” including at the State Service Commission as a deputy commissioner before the current role.

Hampton says it was his job as manager for the higher courts that helped to qualify him for the current role because it involved big technology projects, introducing transcription technology and video conferencing into the courts, and running big teams.

“I don’t have a technology background and I suspect had I not done that work, I might not have been able to do the job I’m doing now.”

The GCSB has grown from about 300 people when he started to about 500 fulltime equivalents now. He is also New Zealand’s man in the room in Five Eyes meetings with the US, UK, Canada and Australia.

He can hardly reveal the agenda of their meetings but as well as areas for co-operation it is likely to include China’s relationships with Pacific countries and whether China has progressed its bid to find a base for its navy in the Pacific.

“The ongoing strategic competition which is playing out in our region is obviously a key focus for the bureau as well,” he said.

“Intelligence that we have provided to Government decision-makers has helped inform them about how New Zealand responds to that changing environment.”

Asked if China was going to find a base in the South Pacific, Hampton said: “It is probably not for me to speculate what is happening on diplomatic or military affairs but the Pacific and what has been happening in our region has been an enduring area of intelligence interest for successive Governments.”

Unfortunately, the Pacific was also becoming not just a transit point but a destination for transnational crime as well, which was an interest of the bureau.

The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s invasion is obviously an area of immediate interest, especially given the fact that New Zealand is on Russia’s list of 43 “unfriendly countries”, and its expertise in malicious cyber attacks.

He said there was less cyber activity targeted in Ukraine than had been anticipated or that Russia was capable of.

“At the same time, Russia does have significant capabilities in this area. They are unpredictable so it is quite possible that could change.”

And the activities of sympathisers to Russia and criminal groups were also of concern with any state-sponsored cyber attacks, “because the risks of misattribution, of miscalculation are higher when you have non-state actors.”

He said perhaps the biggest risk for New Zealand was from an indirect attack in which we were not directly targeted but were affected through part of the supply chain elsewhere being targeted.

The part of the job Hampton can’t talk about is the highly classified work that helps to prevent terrorism abroad or the ways in which the bureau gives its technical expertise to requests from police or other agencies for surveillance.

The part of the bureau’s work Hampton is most public about is the cyber security role which, through the bureau’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), involves helping to protect information and communication infrastructure for Government agencies and nationally significant organisations from attack or exploitation.

Last November’s NCSC report showed a 15 per cent increase in major incidents from the previous year, ironically 404 incidents, and included attacks on the Reserve Bank, the Waikato DHB and NZX.

But the scope of the NCSC is limited.

“We can’t be the country’s firewall,” said Hampton. “We can’t even be the Government’s firewall so we are about identifying what are some key interventions, some key products we’ve got that allow us to protect as many organisations as we can.”

In a major development last year, the NCSC launched the Malware Free Network (MFN) project, which makes its cyber threat intelligence freely available to commercial cyber security providers to help their customers defend their systems against attack – and Hampton says it has disrupted 50,000 attacks in four months.

The bureau has just won an industry award for its work with cloud providers Microsoft and Amazon Web Services to get certain standard templates built into their Azure and AWS cloud offerings to the public service.

The bureau’s work in 2021 also involved providing intelligence for mass evacuations as Kabul in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

Hampton himself was absent for three months on medical leave. He underwent surgery for head cancer and the removal of a tumour behind his nose.

He said he wouldn’t normally talk about such matters except for two things: he didn’t want anyone else to do what he did and ignore symptoms – he had no pain but had a runny nose for a year and put it down to hay fever – and he wanted to acknowledge the support he had had from his family, the bureau and the health professionals who treated him.

It has been quite the career journey for a farm boy from Ashburton who still considers himself a country person. He lives on a five-acre block in the countryside where his wife and daughter follow their passion for horses.

“I find it oddly comforting to drive home in the evening and get out and cut up some firewood or fix a fence,” he says.

And to feed the chooks.

“I like chooks.”

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