Secure New Zealand notion lives on

After initial excitement late last year surrounding the idea of turning New Zealand into the Switzerland of data security, all has apparently gone quiet on the scheme.

After initial excitement late last year surrounding the idea of turning New Zealand into the Switzerland of data security, all has apparently gone quiet on the scheme.

For people with long memories – ones that stretch back to 1987 – there’ll be a touch of deja vu about this. The reality is, though, that the notion lives on, but has fallen into the hands of bureaucrats. If that sounds like the kiss of death for an entrepreneurial dream, I wouldn’t give up hope just yet. Personally, where there’s the prospect of public money becoming involved, I’d rather the idea be thoroughly checked out before my taxes were committed to it.

The clearest articulation of this idea came from Arjen de Landgraaf, who runs a company on Auckland’s north shore that aims to be first in the world to warn of computer security breaches of all kinds. De Landgraaf’s thought from the outset was to exploit (a dirty word in the security industry, but not in this usage) New Zealand’s time-zone advantage – the fact that the new working day dawns here earlier than anywhere else on earth. Therefore we would be aware of the latest internet-borne virus, for example, ahead of the rest of the world, and were in a prime position to export the information in the form of an alert service.

That’s precisely the service de Landgraaf runs today, and customers include the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which turns over millions of dollars in online betting, as well as a handful other overseas organisations. But de Landgraaf has a grander ambition, not just for himself but for the country. Apart from the time-zone benefit of our location on the globe, he thinks we could be exploiting (that word again) our geographical remoteness: here’s New Zealand, at the bottom of the planet – what a perfect place for overseas customers to conduct sensitive data transactions. He envisages New Zealand becoming known for this in just the same way as Switzerland is the home of banking. This would come about through the creation of a range of e-security-related ventures, with backing from the government.

Computerworld has reported on a number of ventures that are going ahead independently of each other and the government. Among them is de Landgraaf’s own service, a plan to get a chain of data vaults operating throughout the country and the development by another north shore company of a device to block distributed denial of service attacks. Whether these, and any other less well-known efforts, are enough to persuade the government that there’s something worth backing remains to be seen.

When a similar notion was put to the last Labour government, in the late 1980s, it fell on deaf ears. That scheme, however, called for investment of about $100 million and would have involved creation of a massive data storage facility. Its originator, Databank founder Gordon Hogg, pictured it as a “repository of knowledge” on a scale that would allow recreation of the Mona Lisa, say, in the event that it was destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. This was the era when New Zealand first passed its nuclear-free legislation, and Hogg’s scheme had the backing of disarmament minister Fran Wilde. She couldn’t persuade her colleagues to put money into, though, so the idea languished.

The present government shows signs of having learnt a thing or two since then. It has set a researcher to work to discover whether there is a viable market for a New Zealand-based e-security industry. The researcher, working within Industry New Zealand, has been mandated to “identify opportunities for the New Zealand private sector in Australasia, North America and Southeast Asia, to ascertain private sector capability gaps that impede the exploitation of offshore opportunities and make recommendations on how the government can facilitate the growth of this dynamic, high-growth ICT niche sector”.

Such language at least shows an encouraging degree of awareness of the security market's potential. We’ll know in a month or two – that’s the deadline for completion of this study – whether the government's prepared to put its money where its mouth is. In the meantime, if you’re in the security business and want to help persuade the government to back it, send an email to Joseph Rousseau.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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