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Māori and cyber safety - Examining an unsafe online climate and the need for action

By Mitchell Hageman
Mon 30 May 2022

Aotearoa puts millions of dollars every year into cybersecurity and safety initiatives, but there are still significant challenges and pitfalls relating to cyber safety that often place some communities in danger.

Government-funded and non for profit research have proven over the years that there is a significant online risk for many of our diverse communities in Aotearoa, with Māori often being singled out as a particularly vulnerable group.

Research from Netsafe in 2019 revealed that Māori were found to be less confident about their digital competencies compared to other ethnic groups and are constantly being exposed to unsafe online behaviour. Threatening someone with image-based sexual abuse online was more common among Māori compared with other ethnic groups, and research has also shown females, and more so disabled Māori females, are at more risk of online safety issues than any other ethnicity.

Online cyber safety can entail a lot of things, but when the history of Māori online safety is examined, there are many challenges that occur that aren't faced by Pākehā. 

Māori are not only subject to increased prejudice and discrimination online, but they are also subject to other threats such as scams and cyber breaches. RNZ previously reported in December 2020 that there was a significant rise in pyramid schemes targeting Māori and Pasifika communities, with many being targeted with emails and website links promising quick return on investments online.

There were also reports in 2019 of direct ethnic online scams that utilised Māori culture. This involved someone on Facebook, Instagram, or through messages and other social media claiming he was "Whānau" or a "Cuzzie" and then proceeding to ask for money or a loan.

Bullying and abuse of Māori is also prevalent online. Research by Action Station shows that one in three Māori (33%) people experienced racial abuse and harassment online in 2018, highlighting an unsafe environment that could lead to further safety issues.

High profile incidents of hate speech and white supremacy are also on the rise in Aotearoa, and online forums such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit pose serious security threats to Māori, with perpetrators often able to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, even with a rise in media exposure and scrutiny for these big companies around their standards, this rarely makes a significant impact on preventing racism towards Māori. 

While these facts are only snapshots of a wider problem, there are also those who believe that Māori are often being overrepresented in negative statistics and research, and not enough is being done to help keep them safe online. 

Dr Karaitiana Taiuru PhD, JP, has spent years looking at online safety through a Tikanga Māori lens. He says there are deep-rooted issues and problems that create a generally unsafe environment for Māori online.

"The real issue is a lack of representation in the security area and a misunderstanding of the technology," he says.

In the past, Dr Taiuru has examined the role government and Netsafe have played in keeping Māori safe online and says that often community members don't feel safe to even report security or safety issues.

"Netsafe operates in a Eurocentric state where I often hear Māori feel re vicitmised or have experienced culturally unsafe behavior from the staff."

He says the lack of support, research and general care for Māori online safety has been occurring for a long time now, and there needs to be significant changes in the way agencies work to help create better solutions.

"All of the security agencies (Police, DIA, NZSIS, GCSB, DPMC, etc.) need to work together and with Māori. They appeared to do so after the Christchurch terrorist attack but did and still have ignored that Māori are at high risk.

"There is a substantial amount of research showing Māori have a mistrust of the government, police and agencies etc. So the current reporting mechanisms rely on being comfortable to make a complaint to the authorities."

There are also issues around accessing material, with a lack of resources specifically for Māori making it harder for communities to become involved.

"There are no resources that consider Māori cultural issues such as breaches of tikanga, cultural abuse, IP theft, online racism etc, abuse using te reo Māori and other languages. The system is designed for English speaking Pākehā males in my opinion," says Dr Taiuru.

He says often online resources are "excluding a whole sector of Kōhanga/Kura Kaupapa Māori children and whānau who are immersed in te reo Māori."

Looking to the future, Dr Taiuru says that more Māori representation in the cybersecurity industry and associated agencies could help create better outcomes for Māori.

"I think corporates such as Microsoft could build up their equality hiring and mentoring procedures as part of being a good corporate citizen and employ more Māori in the cybersecurity fields.

"Netsafe also now has a new CEO who is from the rainbow community and is on a journey of discovering his whakapapa Māori."

Netsafe have also released a te reo Māori version of its "Staying Safe Online" 2020 report, and there is hope that more targeted resources will follow and that new research will represent Māori fairly and accurately.

Another avenue for change would be having Māori input for key legislation, says Dr Taiuru.

"The [Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015] also needs proper community input for an amended version that actually protects victims and not the perpetrators."

While it's clear there is still a lot of work to be done to keep Māori safe online, there looks to be a community understanding that a path to better outcomes will come from embracing Te Tiriti and bolstering Māori inclusion in cybersecurity decision making. The 2021 Digital inclusion user insights — Māori report by Digital.govt stressed that Māori inclusion could be improved by better communication and collaboration between Iwi and government, and recognising the power imbalance and need for Māori led initiatives is crucial.

"Māori counsellors and teachers could be upskilled to deal with issues that occur in the school and maybe marae-led initiatives could be supported by the government," suggests Dr Taiuru.

Microsoft recently partnered with social enterprise TupuToa to co-develop a cyber security employment programme specifically aimed at Māori and Pasifika. Funding was given to promote diversity and inclusion in the cybersecurity sector and having Māori and Pasifika input here is seemingly a small but important step in the right direction, helping Aotearoa become a safer place for everybody.

Public Interest Journalism Fund logo
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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