AUSMIN 2022: cyber-enabled foreign interference
1 Dec 2022| and

As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence prepare to meet for the annual AUSMIN consultations, ASPI has released a collection of essays exploring the policy context and recommending Australian priorities for the talks. This is an abridged version of a chapter from the collection; readers who are interested in learning more about this topic are encouraged to access the full text on the ASPI website.

When AUSMIN began in 1985, the internet was still under development. Even as cyberspace started going global in the late 1990s, it would be another two decades before most governments turned their attention to complex challenges resulting from the ambition to maintain a free, open and secure internet run almost entirely by the private sector.

The economic liberalism that encouraged globalisation is now confronting the weaponisation of that interconnectivity. Authoritarian states firewall their domestic cyberspace environments to maintain social control. Those states, and malign non-state actors, exploit globally connected networks as vectors for cyberattacks, data theft and information operations. Of those emerging security challenges, the ways in which an increasingly wide range of state and non-state actors manipulate the open information environments of democratic countries has historically received the least attention from policymakers and regulators.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October, and the dismantling of the human rights team, alongside resignations from the senior leads focusing on misinformation, trust and safety, online harms, information operations and harassment, should sound an alarm for policymakers and regulators, including those attending next week’s AUSMIN. Media reporting claimed that, by mid-November, only four US-based employees were left at Twitter working to stop foreign disinformation campaigns, and no content moderation staff focused on the Asia–Pacific (except for one contractor helping with spam in the Korean market).

Adversaries and malign actors work at fissures in the openness of multicultural, democratic societies to interfere in and destabilise those societies. The actors behind these operations—whether state or non-state, and whether politically, financially or geostrategically motivated—push extremist narratives, conspiracy theories and disinformation across online channels. The targets are domestic and global debates, the public, elections, governments, multilateral organisations, businesses, individuals and key decision points (for example, governments meeting to vote at the UN).

Information manipulation and cyber-enabled foreign interference are now occurring in many ways,  overt and covert. For years, ASPI has conducted research into the tactics and strategies used by state and non-state actors in areas such as economic security, foreign policy and defence, and politics and society.

The concern these issues are causing has become evident in AUSMIN communiqués as emerging and cyber-enabled security challenges gain prominence with US and Australian policymakers. ‘Countering disinformation’, for example, went from two mentions in 2020 to five in 2021. Both governments have ground to make up.

Australia has suffered from a lack of clarity on which parts of government should protect which parts of the information environment—the public sector, the private sector and individual citizens—from interference by foreign actors with malicious intent. There’s clarity on the protection of government data, but the protection of industry and citizens’ data and personal safety has seemingly slipped through the cracks between policy and intelligence agencies. No one agency or authority seems to have been given responsibility for countering cyber-enabled foreign interference with Australian citizens.

It’s time for Canberra to devote serious resources to this challenge. The upcoming cyber strategy—which can reallocate priorities and funding—provides parliament, and especially Home Affairs and Cyber Minister Clare O’Neil, with a neat mechanism to get its ducks in a row in 2023.

The US has historically been more attuned to and focused on this policy space but, like most open societies, sat idle while hoping that the freedom of cyberspace would liberalise the globe, while the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing took control of the internet at home and used its openness to engage in interference abroad. The US, still dealing with the aftermath of Russia’s use of cyber to disrupt the 2016 election, also lost some credibility after Facebook and Twitter disrupted a network of pro-US government accounts in 2022 (reportedly linked to the US military) that were covertly seeking to influence users in the Middle East and Asia with pro-Western perspectives about international politics, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US government will face challenges in credibly talking to allies and partners about countering disinformation and foreign interference if it doesn’t articulate a distinction between its own environment-shaping activities and the at-scale propaganda and information campaigns run by Russia, Iran and China. As one US diplomat put it to the Washington Post:

Generally speaking, we shouldn’t be employing the same kind of tactics that our adversaries are using because the bottom line is we have the moral high ground. We are a society that is built on a certain set of values. We promote those values around the world and when we use tactics like those, it just undermines our argument about who we are.

Cyber-enabled foreign interference is now a growth industry that’s eroding the quality of the information environment. While ongoing developments with Twitter are highly worrying, they also provide an opportunity, for democracies in particular, to focus minds and resources. The time is ripe for the Australian and US governments to take a leadership position on this issue and coordinate other democracies to build a more global and impactful response to this threat.

Smart forms of government involvement in fostering democratic resilience to cyber-enabled foreign interference will involve working collaboratively with industry; for example, in protecting the digital public sphere that enables political participation, and ultimately the popular legitimacy of the institutions of government. One element of this strategy will be to apply the same country-agnostic standards of accountability to all technology and internet platforms and companies, whether that technology emerges from states that are open and democratic or closed and authoritarian.

The US and Australia must prioritise this growing challenge and sync up more on strategies, resourcing and policy.

Recommendation 1: The Australian and US governments should work together to build a framework to tackle and deter malicious actors engaging in cyber-enabled foreign interference. The framework could serve as a blueprint for other partners and allies struggling with this complex policy challenge. This should include more and closer coordination on some new and ongoing deterrence measures (including the imposition of costs).

Recommendation 2: The US and Australian governments need to build specific capabilities, knowledge and policy responses to deter and respond to the key actor in the Indo-Pacific engaging in the widespread promotion of disinformation and cyber-enabled foreign interference—the Chinese party-state. Congressional and parliamentary bodies should commission dedicated inquiries into Chinese cyber-enabled foreign interference, and the findings should be factored into policy responses. The reports by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Russia’s Internet Research Agency and by the Stanford Internet Observatory on the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, could act as models.

Recommendation 3: The US and Australia should throw their weight behind the creation of an Indo-Pacific hybrid threats centre. They could use both the 2022 and 2023 AUSMIN discussions to plan out their engagement with, and support of, such a centre. The centre would have a deterrent effect, creating transparency and offering a spectrum of attribution when governments in the region may be unwilling to do so. It could be a vehicle for reporting and analysis and regional capacity building, with a focus of democratic resilience to foreign interference, disinformation and subversion.

With cyber at the forefront of malicious activity by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, and non-state criminal behaviour, leaders need to make 2023 the year they take cyberspace and cybersecurity back from those doing us harm.