Amid increasing concerns about foreign interference, particularly through online disinformation, the Home Affairs Department’s role in security matters is growing significantly. By Karen Middleton.

Home Affairs extends reach in tackling foreign interference

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and Foreign Minister Marise Payne at a senate estimates hearing in March.
Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and Foreign Minister Marise Payne at a senate estimates hearing in March.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

The Department of Home Affairs is cementing its role as chief co-ordinator of Australian security, rolling out permanent and as-required taskforces across government and the community to tackle threats in the real world and online.

Home Affairs was instrumental in the creation of a new higher education integrity unit that Education Minister Dan Tehan announced this week, aimed at “academic and research integrity, cyber security, foreign interference and admission standards”.

But The Saturday Paper understands cybersecurity and combating foreign interference and espionage are the unit’s central focus.

Its work will include equipping universities to guard their research from being stolen or subject to foreign interference, and against foreign spies grooming researchers as potential future assets.

The launch of the integrity unit is the latest move in a strategy to elevate security as a focus and entrench protection measures in every corner of Australian life – from government and corporate activity to day-to-day interactions.

It comes in response to what the government believes is the growing cyber threat, particularly but not exclusively from China.

Similar units are planned for other sectors the government believes to be vulnerable to foreign interference and cyber attack.

One member of the security community says the Home Affairs Department’s growing security fix-it role is prompting it to be described – not entirely tongue in cheek – as the “Swiss Army knife of government”.

The department is also behind a Covid-19 counter-misinformation taskforce – chaired by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and also involving Health – which works to quickly refute any inaccurate information about the coronavirus that might be spreading in the public domain.

Home Affairs further established and ran an emergency supply-chain taskforce when the Covid-19 pandemic led to panic buying in supermarkets earlier this year. Among a range of interventions, that taskforce worked to thwart attempted denial-of-service attacks on suppliers’ computer networks. The hacking attempts were believed to be opportunistic, not part of any organised foreign action.

But foreign attacks are a key security focus, with a new government cyber strategy due to be published soon. A separate strategic defence review, also due imminently, is expected to identify the regional threat from China as among the greatest Australia faces.

The creation of the higher education integrity unit comes less than a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a highly unusual and dramatic public warning about threats to cybersecurity from a deliberately unnamed foreign government – widely accepted as China.

“Australian organisations are currently being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor,” Morrison said on June 19. “This activity is targeting Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure.”

The prime minister said the activity was increasing. “That is why we are raising this matter today,” he said, “to raise awareness of this important issue and to encourage organisations, particularly those in the health, critical infrastructure and essential services, to take expert advice and implement technical defences to thwart this malicious cyber activity.”

Some observers saw the prime ministerial intervention as little more than an attempted political diversion – something for which the government is increasingly known.

But government sources say it was intended to rouse a complacent corporate sector to investigate and protect themselves against potential cyberthreats.

According to security sources, Australia is currently the subject of a major Chinese cyber hoovering exercise, one designed to map the entire country’s corporate, government, academic, political and social structures and networks.

The Saturday Paper understands there is no sign the exercise is aimed at disabling specific targets but rather at mapping relationships between people and organisations for future use.

It comes in the wake of three Australian moves in recent years that have angered China: the blocking of Chinese tech giant Huawei’s access to government contracts; the strengthening of foreign interference laws; and, most recently, the championing of an international inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak.

This week, a senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media heard how China, Russia and other countries are intervening in Australian online discourse. The committee heard that China is now replicating Russian methods to disrupt and influence debate and spread false narratives.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) researchers Dr Jake Wallis and Tom Uren told the committee that China, Russia and Iran were peddling conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic and reinforcing one another’s efforts to exploit fears and weave them into self-serving narratives.

Wallis said China was experimenting with Russian techniques in a bid to portray itself as well equipped to manage the outbreak and a good global citizen.

“The pandemic has created a perfect storm of information manipulation, with these state and non-state actors echoing each other’s theories, tactics and techniques,” he said.

The Chinese government recently singled out ASPI for condemnation.

The researchers recommended establishing an independent statutory authority to monitor and report on how social media platforms are operating. “No one in government thinks that they own this problem,” Uren told the committee.

Two weeks ago, ASPI published a report, “Retweeting through the Great Firewall”, based on analysis of 23,750 accounts that Twitter had identified as being suspect, along with other Twitter and Facebook accounts that the researchers identified as likely belonging to the same group.

Many of the accounts had few or no followers. Their focus was fourfold: the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the situation of exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, Covid-19, and Taiwan.

The report found China was co-ordinating its diplomatic and state media messaging and immediately rebutting Western media coverage. It was using Western social media to seed disinformation, co-opting fringe conspiracy media to target networks vulnerable to manipulation, and using fake accounts and undeclared political ads to manipulate audiences.

Separate research in the lead-up to the 2019 Australian federal election identified accounts managed from Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia that were using inflammatory content to steer Facebook discussion groups to particular “content farms” that carried paid advertising.

The senate committee’s focus distinguishes foreign interference – being covert and deceptive – from influence, which is more open.

It is also examining the intersection between misinformation, which is generally mistaken inaccuracy, and purposefully spread disinformation.

Government agencies are concerned Australians seeking information are now particularly vulnerable to being manipulated, having experienced the consecutive and overlapping stresses of prolonged drought, bushfires and now the coronavirus pandemic.

They point to the fuelling of divisions online – sometimes by amplifying the extremes of both sides of a political argument in order to put pressure on those in the centre – as part of a strategy to undermine trust in government and other institutions and in democracy.

Associate professors Mathieu O’Neil and Michael Jensen from the University of Canberra (UC), and Professor Robert Ackland from the Australian National University (ANU), described the way Russian online trolls used social media to distort Australian political debate.

A joint study by UC’s News and Media Research Centre and the ANU’s Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks Lab examined Australian political posts on Twitter from 2015 and 2016 and identified some linked to the Russian propagandist Internet Research Agency.

The study identified 70 accounts that had authored 535 tweets or retweets focused on Australia featuring one of a group of hashtags used commonly in local political debate. It identified three kinds of Russian troll behaviour: building an audience for future influence, seeking to steer debate on particular issues by linking them to current events, and causing disruption with divisive interventions.

The ASPI report also identified these tactics, with apparently Beijing-backed tweeters linking the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States to protests in Hong Kong and suggesting US police violence proved that pro-democracy protesters should not be looking to the US as a model.

The ASPI researchers also described the practice of buying and manipulating credible profiles with many followers to steer conversations in particular directions, sow discord or lure readers to particular sites.

In its submission, the Department of Home Affairs warned about the growing presence and use of social media platforms in Australia that are extensions of those in authoritarian regimes. The submission said the incidence of both censorship and reduced privacy on the platforms “may require additional responses” – but did not elaborate.

“Foreign interference is a genuine threat to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests – it can threaten our very way of life,” reads Home Affairs’ submission.

The department confirms the Australian government is part of a co-ordinated effort with allies to specifically name countries engaging in malicious cyber activity when they consider it is warranted. It says the government has participated six times since 2017.

In a speech last week to the ANU’s National Security College, Foreign Minister Marise Payne criticised China’s “disinformation” campaign as fuelling “fear and division” during Covid-19.

She noted that recently Australia had signed a United Nations statement declaring that the pandemic had “created conditions that enabled the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence, to divide communities”.

“We committed in that statement to fighting the so-called ‘infodemic’,” Payne said. “I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts of disinformation. We will do so through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal, democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad.”

Domestically, Home Affairs appears to be leading that effort.

The department’s potential power concerned some in the security community when it was established in late 2017.

In October of that year, its secretary, Mike Pezzullo, gave a speech outlining the challenges he foresaw in security and what he wanted to change.

“The state has to embed itself invisibly into global networks and supply chains, and the virtual realm, in a seamless and largely invisible fashion, intervening on the basis of intelligence and risk settings, increasingly at super scale and at very high volumes,” he said.

That process is under way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2020 as "Troll calls".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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