Mitigating diffused security risks in Australia’s north: a case for digital inclusion

Australians’ daily reliance on digital communications infrastructure—from smartphones and social media platforms to the National Broadband Network—is changing the nature of national security risks.

Just like our networked communication patterns, contemporary security risks are becoming increasingly diffused—geographically dispersed, nonlinear in their causes and outcomes, and difficult to predict and contain.

Lessons from armed conflicts in other regions can help policymakers think about how to develop resilient social and communications infrastructure in Australia’s critical northern approaches.

The ongoing Russia–Ukraine conflict is one such case study. On 25 February 2014, polite uniformed men with no insignia inconspicuously took over the administrative buildings of Simferopol, Ukraine. These events represent a significant development in the conduct of modern-day warfare: not a shot was fired in the course of the Russian annexation of Crimea, in what is now known as the most significant breach of state borders since World War II.

In retrospect, the photos and news reports from those turbulent events in Crimea were deliberately obscure, which has become a distinctive feature of contemporary military conflicts. Due to their diffused nature, identifying and mitigating security risks calls for a combination of digital literacy and inclusion among the civilian population.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia repeated the same scenario in other eastern Ukrainian cities, including Donetsk and Luhansk. In response, citizens of Mariupol—the next strategic object of Russian interest on the map—took to social media to pre-emptively identify these patterns and mitigate the diffused and otherwise inconspicuous security threats in their city.

Grassroots open-source-intelligence communities are an emerging type of social infrastructure in which civilian networks rely on widely available information and communications technologies to build resilience to security threats. Thousands of Mariupol civilians spent their days and nights collecting and verifying intelligence from local social media posts and informants, and fighting the spread of false and misleading information about events in their city. This civilian effort became part of a coordinated response with local security services and the state military.

Arguably, had Mariupol been the first eastern Ukrainian city on the line of Russia’s ‘non-occupation’ tactics, or had it lacked the critical communications infrastructure at the time when these events were unfolding, it would likely have joined the ranks of the separatist republics. Yet, six years later, Mariupol firmly remains a part of Ukraine.

The success of the city’s citizen-led campaign makes a strong case for strategic investment in digital inclusion and digital literacy as a pathway for identifying and mitigating hybrid, externally orchestrated interventions. In a context where ‘every battle seems personal, but every conflict is global’, as argued by 21st century war experts P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, what lessons can be applied from the Crimean scenario to the Northern Territory?

Despite the absence of historical claims on the Northern Territory by other nations in the Asia–Pacific region, the two territories—pre-2014 Crimea and the Northern Territory—share some commonalities. Both bear a centuries-long legacy of colonial violence toward the Indigenous populations, which resulted in socioeconomic disparities that continue to shape the local context.

Both are home to large-scale infrastructure developments, including externally funded private-sector-initiated projects, and rely heavily on tourism. Both also have a fair degree of self-governance within a broader national framework yet have a strategic geopolitical significance in maintaining domestic and regional security.

The changing nature of contemporary military conflicts calls for the ability to effectively mitigate diffused security threats. Hybrid conflicts, which blur the distinctions between digital and physical battlefronts and between military and civilian actors, call for an expanded understanding of the role Australian civilians can play in supporting these strategic capabilities.

Countermeasures should extend beyond the cybersecurity domain and focus on two key aspects: first, supporting national efforts in expediting the NBN rollout to remote areas in the NT while also ensuring the service is affordable, especially for young people and marginalised groups; and second, strengthening civil society institutions and promoting public education campaigns on disinformation and media manipulation.

Contributing to Australia’s defence shouldn’t be the exclusive purview of the Australian Defence Force members. As the Ukrainian example demonstrates, committed citizens and community groups with high digital media skills and a good knowledge of the local context can become key actors in identifying hybrid, externally orchestrated interventions.

While a direct military attack on the Northern Territory may be unlikely, civilian resilience—the ability of citizens to identify and react to diffused security threats locally—is becoming paramount in maintaining domestic security in hybrid contexts.

In the present environment where most of us work, shop and socialise remotely, this combination of digital literacy and digital inclusion would feed into strengthening long-term civilian resilience capabilities and contribute to the defence of Australia’s north.