The threat spectrum

Welcome to ‘The threat spectrum’, a twice-monthly update focusing on non-traditional security threats. It’s divided into five sections covering climate change (Planet A), trends in democracy and authoritarianism (Democracy watch), mis- and disinformation (Information operations), economics and global finance (Follow the money), and counterterrorism and non-state actors (Terror byte).

Planet A

A recent BBC report shows how climate change and rising sea levels have forced migration and displaced locals in Fiji, leading to empty villages across the island nation. Vunidogoloa was the first to become a climate-induced ‘ghost village’ in 2014. The story of locals being displaced by global warming has been repeated throughout the Pacific, and the trend is accelerating.

The International Labor Organization estimates that between 25 million and 1 billion people may be displaced due to climate-change-related effects by 2050. To put that in context, the displacement of 6.5 million people during the Syrian conflict has put pressure on political systems from the Middle East to the UK. The Institute for Economics and Peace points out that some of the countries most at risk, like Syria, Iraq, India and Pakistan, are also among the least stable, raising further concerns for security and counterterrorism in the region. As a leader in the Pacific, where climate migration is particularly likely, this will have serious implications for Australia’s security, perhaps sooner than we think.

Democracy watch

The tactics used by protestors in Hong Kong have spread to emerging pro-democracy and protest movements around the world, including Belarus, Lebanon, Thailand and the US. Techniques including forming human chains, using encrypted messaging services and using art and popular culture to boost messaging and narrative power are among those used. Coordinated group defences that have spread from Hong Kong include using umbrellas as protective shields, using traffic cones and tennis racquets to defend against tear gas, and wearing face coverings to protect against facial recognition surveillance.

While the character of these movements differs, these approaches demonstrate how grassroots movements can transcend borders to become part of a networked global fight against authoritarianism. As Hong Kong activist Nathan Law said, these movements are ‘our collective battle, for our [democratic] values, for a world we want to live in’.

Information operations

The Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center is developing a tool called ‘Entropy’ that will take text and video data from the internet and use it to summarise online trends in near real time. The US military will use the information to help understand the sentiments of adversaries and the general public. Entropy currently focuses on Tagalog, Mandarin and English but can be fine-tuned for other languages. A component under consideration would influence and shape the information environment by feeding messages and counter-messages back onto the internet.

According to a series of slides leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, the UK also has information influencing capabilities, including tools to fake Facebook posts or artificially increase traffic to websites. Online foreign interference has been led by countries such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia but military methodology has also been co-opted by corporations and interest groups to shape public opinion for their own interests. It remains relatively cheap and easy for well-resourced groups and states to influence the information environment.

Follow the money

The EU–China leaders’ meeting concluded this week. Issues such as trade, human rights and climate were raised by top EU officials and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

One of the key sticking points was the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The agreement has been under negotiation since 2014 and is a priority for Germany’s presidency of the European Council. While noting progress on China’s regulation of state-owned enterprises and forced technology transfers, the European Council emphasised that ‘more work was urgently needed on the issues of rebalancing market access and on sustainable development’. On the European side, market access to China is particularly sought by the agri-food, financial services and digital sectors. Xi has agreed to ‘expedite’ talks on the agreement, but with both sides hoping for a conclusion by the end of the year, an outcome only possible if one of the parties gives ground on human rights, trade transparency and the climate impacts of the deal.

Terror byte

At a recent ASPI discussion about global terrorism threats, Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally highlighted the threat of far-right extremism in Australia and urged the government to join other Five Eyes nations by listing far-right organisations as terrorist groups.

ASIO and other security agencies have already warned that right-wing groups are ‘becoming more organised and sophisticated than ever before’. Australian security agencies’ focus on countering far-right extremism has increased in recent years, and the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified risks of extremist narratives becoming mainstream. Despite the recognition of the threat, experts have argued that politics has gotten in the way of the government reviewing Australia’s terror register.

The debate comes after a New Zealand court handed a life sentence without parole to the Australian terrorist who murdered 51 people in Christchurch last year and the NZ government listed him as a ‘terrorist entity’.