Australia’s intelligence community must adapt to stay ahead of the game

The next independent review of Australia’s intelligence community received welcome funding in this month’s federal budget. That should put Canberra on track to meet the five- to seven-yearly schedule set by the post-Iraq Flood review in 2004, which established regular intelligence community assessments rather than relying on post-mortems.

While there’s been no intelligence failure, the strategic context is shifting rapidly, with rising global instability, Moscow’s war in Europe and an increasingly aggressive Beijing. At the same time, we have the growing abuse of technology by authoritarian regimes and the spectre of Australia’s largest trading partner and closest ally seeking to technologically decouple.

A general check-up geared to confirm the status quo will be insufficient. The review will need to grapple with some revolutionary changes already happening as well as those on the horizon, foremost among them technological game-changers such as generative artificial intelligence and the enormous growth in open-source opportunities beyond what was foreseen at the time of the last review in 2017.

That will create two imperatives. First, the intelligence community, expert at acquiring and understanding secrets (expressed so well by the Australian Signals Directorate’s motto of ‘reveal their secrets, protect our own’), needs to continue to adapt to the new realities of open-source intelligence, known as OSINT. Democracies have, on the whole, slipped behind authoritarian countries in exploiting the rapid expansion of publicly available information.

Second, and equally important, we cannot make the mistake of thinking OSINT can solve all problems and let our covert intelligence capabilities take a back seat or even wither.

We need to do both, and do them well, because the nations whose intelligence agencies and governments are best able to distinguish fact from fiction, and derive quality from the quantity of information, will gain an upper hand in the sharpening strategic competition we face over the coming decades.

Like Moore’s law in computing power, the amount of information being created and consumed worldwide is nearly doubling every two years. There’s a corresponding increase in disinformation and misinformation, which is one reason why we need to excel at identifying, aggregating and assessing the near-boundless quantity of information available online and turning it into quality analysis.

Outfits like Bellingcat and our own Australian Strategic Policy Institute have shown how OSINT can be used to expose globally significant crimes and misconduct, from uncovering Russian skulduggery over the past decade to mapping Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

However, there is a risk of democratic hubris when it comes to OSINT. The West has shown the tendency in the past to mistakenly assume that greater connectivity equals greater openness and that this means the technological chips are necessarily going to fall the way of freedom.

The Economist has written that the ‘emerging era of open-source intelligence’ offers ‘cause for fresh hope’ that authoritarians might have the narrative pried away from their control. The magazine boldly declared OSINT to be ‘a welcome threat to malefactors and governments with something to hide’.

The problem is, the West has had these excitable notions before, first misjudging the possibility of controlling the internet as akin to ‘nailing jello to a wall’—in the words of former US president Bill Clinton—and then making the same mistake with social media after the Arab Spring briefly suggested that network platforms would be too anarchic for authoritarians to corral.

In fact, Beijing and Moscow quietly watched events unfold and set about building apparatuses that have proven our optimism to be completely misplaced.

Consider the ways open-source information about democratic societies has already been weaponised against us—from Russia’s election interference in the 2016 US election (which still has America gripped by division) to disinformation and conspiracy theories on Covid-19 vaccines.

To counter these authoritarian regimes and respond with our own innovation, greater investment in new skills and—yes, inevitably—new resources will be needed, building on the enhancements made to intelligence agencies in the March 2022 and May 2023 budgets.

Without this commitment to continuous evolution, Western intelligence agencies could fall further behind adversaries who have for years been adapting—including using methods that are alien or unacceptable to us, such as a military–civil fusion model in which the state owns, operates and directs civil society.

While vital, development of open-source capabilities should not be done at the expense of, or by offsetting, secret intelligence capabilities. OSINT and secret intelligence are not interchangeable; they best work hand in hand.

If anything, the abundance of OSINT adds to the work of secret intelligence collection and analysis. In order to identify information and disinformation, to separate truth from errors, and sometimes to decipher ‘faction’ (the blend of fact and fiction), OSINT must be complemented and calibrated by secret intelligence.

We need secrets to do three things: confirm what is in open source, identify and attribute open-source disinformation, and reveal what simply isn’t in the public domain.

Secrets are not redundant when they confirm what is already in the open. Learning that what a government says publicly is what it actually believes in private provides critical insight when trust is otherwise low.

Secrets can also be wielded. US declassification of intelligence ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served many purposes. It created doubt in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, likely delayed his original timeline and prevented him from controlling the narrative as he had done so well in the past.

None of that would have been possible without first collecting secrets. As British diplomat Roderic Braithwaite once observed: ‘Secret intelligence is needed to combat secretive adversaries.’

In a digital age in which technology is at the heart of strategic competition, and in which much of the innovation is taking place in the private rather than the government sector, the coming intelligence review will need to keep the intelligence community at the forefront of the most cutting-edge capabilities.

That competition is not limited to major-power rivalry between Beijing and Washington. It’s a contest in which regional powers like Australia have an active interest and must play their parts.

To meet this responsibility, our government must have a decision-making edge over its foreign rivals and will therefore need Australian intelligence to be at the top of its game on both open-source and secret intelligence.