Espionage and foreign interference threaten Australian sovereignty
23 Feb 2023|

Literature and movies heavily feature themes of espionage and foreign interference. They focus on a dangerous, fast-moving world that provides people with an escape from their everyday lives. However, many in our community would not appreciate the extent of espionage and foreign interference occurring in Australia today. Nor would they realise that they have a role in combating it. It’s just what we see in the movies, right?

The history of espionage and foreign interference in Australia is well documented. It dates back to the lead-up to World War I and had an initial focus on signals intelligence. Over the decades since, Australia’s focus on foreign interference has peaked and waned, but according to the ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess, we are experiencing another peak in activity. Burgess’s 2023 threat assessment highlights that insiders are increasingly becoming insider threats when they ‘disclose sensitive information without authorisation, conduct espionage, foreign interference or sabotage, or help a third party conduct these activities’.

The key message this year from Burgess is, ‘If you are conducting espionage in this country, we will find you and we will deal with you.’ Or to quote from the title character in the spy film Jason Bourne, ‘I know what you did. I know everything.’

Disturbingly, there appears to be a laissez-faire attitude towards espionage and foreign interference in Australia. The commentary about Australia needing to enhance its sovereign capability has intensified during the Covid-19 years. However, the link between foreign interference and sovereignty appears to elude many.

Our sovereignty is threatened when our ‘strategic alliances and defence relationships are undermined’. It’s threatened when others gain insight into ‘our strategic interests and positions on international diplomatic, economic and military issues’ or gain ‘commercial advantage on matters including our energy and mineral resources’. It’s threatened when our ‘innovations in science and technology’ are accessed by an adversary, and when ‘the actions of Australian decision-makers and public opinion’ are influenced in the adversary’s favour.

While we may become enthralled by such concepts in the (many) Jason Bourne movies, we have difficulty connecting them with our day-to-day actions. And our voracious appetite for social media is adding fuel to the fire by actively facilitating opportunities for espionage and foreign interference. While those in the national security community are obvious targets, foreign actors have learned that targeting the wider community delivers results.

Burgess highlighted that foreign intelligence services are actively seeking information about ‘our defence capabilities, government decision-making, political parties, foreign policy, critical infrastructure, space technologies, academic and think tank research, medical advances, key export industries and personal information, especially bulk data’. These foreign operators are targeting politicians, businesspeople, public servants, the judiciary and journalists through individuals who are ‘well connected and well regarded in business and political circles, Australian-born and not publicly associated with the overseas government but all too willing to put its interests ahead of Australia’s’.

In the 2023 threat assessment, Burgess referred to journalists who were invited to participate in all-expenses paid overseas study tours. It reminded me of the old saying, ‘If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.’ This example highlights that we are yet to tap into the healthy scepticism for which Australians are well recognised.

The impact of foreign interference goes beyond exposing a national secret or crippling a business. The Department of Home Affairs warns that ‘it impacts our social cohesion, our trusted democracy, and our freedoms’ and weakens ‘our free and open system of government, our social cohesion and our economic prosperity’. Foreign interference seeks to ‘shape Australia’s sovereign decision-making and alter outcomes’ as a means ‘to gain an improper advantage’, limit freedom of expression and manipulate the media ‘to spread propaganda’, and apply ‘pressure and manipulation to sow discord, silence dissent or damage the cohesion of our society’. In practical terms, the outcomes are social upheaval and economic damage resulting from business and job losses.

The potential impacts of foreign interference are wide ranging and can affect all areas of society. They translate into practical effects that go beyond the principles of cohesion, democracy and freedoms to negatively impact our economy, our welfare system, our national identity and even how we treat each other.

So, if some people who work in sensitive fields struggle to recognise when they’re being targeted, what hope is there for the average person? And why should we worry?

Our level of engagement with social media is both a strength and a weakness. Engaging with strangers for social reform or as a way of connecting with others with similar interests is a positive use. However, I’m amazed by the willingness of people to share information with strangers on social media. I’m sure we’d be much more suspicious if a stranger knocked on our door to grill us for the same information.

I’m also sure that many people would argue they have nothing to hide, or they don’t have any information of significance, but that overlooks the well-honed tradecraft that underpins espionage and interference. At the core of this tradecraft is a process of meticulous information-gathering that pieces together seemingly unrelated bits of information to build a picture of opportunity supported by interconnections and interrelationships. There aren’t many degrees of separation in most communities—particularly in a place like Canberra.

The Australian experience with cybersecurity attacks provides some guidance on what’s needed. We were slow to the mark in raising the awareness of individuals, familiess and small businesses about the impacts of cybersecurity and what they needed to do to protect themselves. We shouldn’t make the same mistake with foreign interference. We need to invest in raising the community’s understanding of foreign interference and providing practical guidance on what people can do at the local level.

Our social cohesion, sovereignty and freedoms are at risk, and they are too important to compromise.