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What is NZ’s Cyber Security Emergency Response Plan?

By Jonathan Cotton, Wed 3 Nov 2021

We’re no stranger to cyber-attacks on these fair shores. Hackers, scammers and ransomers take their crack at Kiwi systems every day. But what happens if things get really bad? If New Zealand was hit by a serious cybersecurity emergency, what then? 

Does New Zealand have an emergency response plan? 

It sure does. 

In terms of key documents, The Cyber Security Emergency Response Plan (CSERP) is the framework that the government will use in the event of a cyber-emergency. 

Primarily aimed at officials involved in New Zealand’s national security system, the CSERP is designed to ensure that the relevant agencies and officials are aware of what their responsibilities are in the event of a significant cyber-attack in this country. It sets guidelines for a coordinated response and serves to educate any private sector organisations affected by such an event. 

The CSERP is part of New Zealand’s broader National Security System (NSS) and is written to clarify the agencies and officials that will respond to cyber-emergencies and what their roles within that response will be, and communicate to the public what the government’s approach is. It does this within the framework of the Cyber Security Strategy. 

The unclassified version omits two additional annexes, which are classified for security reasons (and not even available to outside eyes under the Official Information Act). 

Currently on version five, CSERP is updated regularly and maintained by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and is published by the National Security Group (NSG), in collaboration with other agencies.

Formerly known as the Security and Intelligence Group, the purpose of the NSG is to provide “leadership, advice, support and coordination of the Government’s national security priorities and risks”, and to strengthen national resilience to cyber-threats.

The NSG provides advice to the Prime Minister (who is also the Minister for National Security and Intelligence) and others, including the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, and the Minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). 
 

Who are the key organisations in New Zealand’s Emergency Response Plan?

Responsibility for identifying a cybersecurity emergency lies with New Zealand’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

CERT NZ works with other organisations in the cybersecurity environment across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in New Zealand to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the cyber-threat landscape and the impact of cybersecurity threats. 

Key partners include the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), Netsafe, the NCSC, and
New Zealand Police. 

While CERT NZ has a coordination role in threat response, NCSC takes the lead in the country’s response to significant cyber-events, especially those which have the potential to impact nationally significant systems, security or information.

To find out more about what these agencies do - and the people behind them - see The who’s who of NZ’s government & public cybersecurity agencies. 

Cyber security emergencies are coordinated via the Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS), the framework New Zealand agencies use to manage responses to emergency events. 
 

When is the plan activated? 

Activation of the CSERP occurs when an incident is identified as meeting the
threshold of a cybersecurity emergency. If agencies differ on whether that threshold has, in fact, been met, the CSERP is activated regardless.

Categorisation occurs initially through a triage process performed by CERT and the NCSC. Resources are dedicated according to severity, impact and potential impact. For cybersecurity emergencies categorised as ‘major’, it’s up to CERT or the NCSC to determine “whether broader discussion or interagency response is required”. 

A Cyber Emergency Coordination Group (typically chaired by CERT NZ, NCSC or NCPO) may or may not be created at this point. The group is composed of “sufficiently senior officials to enable decision making” from relevant policy and operational agencies, including representatives from CERT NZ, DIA, DPMC, NCSC and the New Zealand Police.

It is this group that facilitates the speedy activation of CSERP and decides whether the response should be escalated and/or the NSS activated. It is up to the chair to brief senior officials and relevant Ministers on what’s happening. 
 

Escalation

For events categorised as ‘severe’, the National Security System would likely be activated, as the impact of a situation is deemed sufficiently complex, significant or imminent to require the attention of the broader security system.

The response may also include the creation of Watch Groups and the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination (ODESC). 

Watch Groups are made up of senior officials tasked with monitoring the crisis and achieving ‘situational clarity’. While Watch Groups can make some operational decisions in their own right, the NSS Handbook says that, in general, “decisions that are irreversible and commit New Zealand to a certain course of action” would more likely be done by the ODESC or the Cabinet National Security Committee, “depending on the scale and significance of the decision”. 

During such a security event, ODESC provides all-of-government coordination at the chief executive level, “providing strategic advice on priorities and mitigation of risks beyond the lead agency’s control”, making available resources, providing political level links, and supporting Ministers to make policy decisions.

The document urges that, in the wake of a cyber-emergency, “appropriate lessons are identified and acted upon”. 

The CSERP is tested regularly via inter-agency exercises, some of which include private sector and international partners. 

“New Zealand SMEs are always experiencing all kinds of these attacks, as we’ve seen this year,” says Rizwan Asghar, senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science at The University of Auckland. 

“Having an emergency plan in place is important for any organisation, so The Cyber Security Emergency Response Plan is a really positive thing and a good step, because these types of attacks could very much affect New Zealand and its wellbeing.” 

“If there is an emergency and it’s going to have a significant impact, it’s very important to be able to quickly categorise the severity of the attack as minor, moderate, major or severe, and to be able to assign roles quickly.” 

“This document is about ‘this is the role required and this is the entity that is responsible’, so a lot of it is about the delegation of responsibility.”
 

Prepared New Zealand
 
While effective coordination is crucial in times of crisis, preparation is also important - especially in the way we design and develop cyber-systems - says Asghar.
 
“When it comes to security, it’s always good to think ahead,” he says. “When we consider the construction business, when a building is being built, they always consider emergency plans up front. If there’s a fire, where are the exits, for example? If there aren’t any fire exits, you can’t get approval for the building to be built. It’s that simple. But when it comes to digital systems, we don’t have those standards.” 
 
“And as these systems are built, some parts of them get outsourced, maybe some parts are developed by third parties that will never look at them again. It can be very hard to see if things are secure, if things are up to date, and indeed, these are very typical problems.” 

“This is where the government should be thinking - what kind of guidelines and compliance do organisations need to follow? Because if they’ve designed the system from that perspective, things will be easier and will make more sense if they suddenly have to follow emergency guidelines.” 
 
“So the real question, I think, is once a cyber-event has happened, what can we learn in order to protect New Zealand’s organisations further?”

Read the unclassified version of New Zealand’s Cyber Security Emergency Response Plan (CSERP) yourself by clicking here (PDF).

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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