Foreign spies may be posing as students.

Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali
Foreign agents could be working undercover as international students, warns report.

New Zealand intelligence agencies could be allowed to access private student information so they can catch spies posing as international students, following a top-level report to the Government.

Australian media have reported that China is building a large covert spy network inside leading institutions, and the FBI has spoken of cases that indicate United States universities are a target of foreign intelligence services.

READ MORE: GCSB may be given permission to spy on Kiwis’ private information

Now, a wide-ranging review of New Zealand’s SIS and GCSB has recommended a law change that would give the agencies access on a case-by-case basis to national student numbers.

Collected by the Ministry of Education since 2003, the identification numbers are assigned to every early childhood, school and tertiary student.

They are attached to information such as roll returns, and record of enrolment, to give an accurate picture of attendance and teaching.

The Government-ordered intelligence and security review was completed by former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Sir Michael Cullen and lawyer Dame Patsy Reddy after they were given high-level access to the workings of the agencies.

Asked why the agencies would need access to the student numbers, Sir Michael said the reason was primarily to do with international students.

“You will probably understand that we can’t be sure that the large number of overseas students in New Zealand don’t include some people who have other functions in life, apart from study.”

However, Will Matthews, president of Auckland University Students’ Association, said he would be sceptical about concerns about international students being used as a reason for an extension of surveillance powers.

He said he didn’t think those posing as students would have any great access to information, and universities in New Zealand – and the wider economy – were reliant on international students.

“In the past we have seen groups of people used as a scapegoat to justify an extension of intelligence powers.”

There are about 54,000 international students at tertiary level in New Zealand.

In 2014, Fairfax reported that Chinese intelligence officials had confirmed that they were building informant networks to monitor Australia’s ethnic Chinese community and temporary students from mainland China.

If there is a case for that access, they should be making it to the public.

Much of the spying was reported as taking place at universities including Melbourne University and Sydney University, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was said to have built new counter-intelligence capabilities as a result.

In the US, the FBI has confirmed that it has had reason to believe that universities were a target of foreign intelligence services.

Counter-terrorism could be another motivation to access student information. In 2006, Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, in New Zealand on a student visa, was deported on national security grounds. He had moved to Palmerston North, partly to fly at the Manawatu Aero Club. The Government claimed that Ali had lived in Arizona with Hani Hanjour in the months before Hanjour is believed to have piloted one of the planes used in the 9/11 attacks. However, there was no evidence he knew about the attacks or was a security threat to New Zealand.

The intelligence and security report, released on Wednesday and containing 107 recommendations, will now be considered by the Government. No decisions have been made on any proposals.

National hopes to get support from Labour for resulting legislation that could be introduced as early as July.

Labour leader Andrew Little said the number of people causing concern to agencies would be very small, and any retrieval of data needed to be targeted. His instinct was the public had little appetite for access to vast amounts of information.

Green co-leader Metiria Turei said the reviewers or intelligence agencies had not made the case for why access to student numbers and other new information was necessary. “If there is a case for that access, they should be making it to the public.”

A spokeswoman for the University of Auckland said it was not aware of any concerns that international students could be in New Zealand for other purposes. A spokesman for the SIS declined to comment on the recommendation, or possible reasons behind it.

Foreign spies may be posing as students