Nations waging online foreign influence campaigns have turned to dating apps to recruit people privy to sensitive information, according to the chief executive of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the agency of national security directed against external threats and a key partner of Eye Security Alliances.
“Over the past two years, thousands of Australians with access to sensitive information have been targeted by foreign spies using social media profiles,” ASIO chief Mike Burgess revealed in his third annual address. threat assessment on Wednesday.
Two years ago, such moves were most commonly seen on professional social media platforms. Burgess said ASIO must now track dating apps Tinder, Bumble and Hinge because foreign spies have also started using them. WhatsApp was also targeted.
Burgess said the use of such applications is one of the reasons that attempts at foreign interference have become the threat that consumes most ASIO resources – ahead of terror. The chief executive explained that foreign interference involves “the hidden hand of a foreign state” acting contrary to Australia’s interests.
It can be [difficult] for a secret organization to defend itself – it is assumed that if you are in the shadows, you are in the shadows.
He went on to describe such a campaign which involved “a wealthy individual who had direct and deep ties to a foreign government and its intelligence agencies. [and] did the bidding of offshore masters, knowingly and covertly seeking to advance the interests of foreign power. »
Burgess called the person a “puppeteer” and said he ran “a foreign interference start-up” that had a key performance indicator of “covertly shaping the jurisdiction’s political scene for the benefit of foreign power.” .
The puppeteer has planned a campaign to:
- Hire a local employee who began identifying potential candidates for election who “either supported foreign government interests or were deemed vulnerable to incitement and culture.”
- Find ways to advance candidates’ political prospects through generous support, placing supportive articles on foreign-language news platforms and providing other forms of assistance.
- Hire PR and marketing agencies to help the candidate, to create a sense of indebtedness that they can exploit later.
- Use an offshore bank account to pay the above.
- Keep the candidate in the dark about the role of the puppeteer controlling the employee and whether the foreign government was the source of the funds.
ASIO prevented the execution of the plot, but Burgess felt that sometimes such plots work and candidates are elected without knowing the nature of their backers. When this happens, Burgess suggested the following scenario can unfold.
Burgess also lamented that the internet has become “the most potent and potent incubator of extremism in the world” and that the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has sent online radicalization “into overdrive”.
One result is a large cohort of people with new grievances related to the pandemic and its handling by governments.
Online radicalization efforts by extremist groups have also increased, according to ASIO’s assessment. And these efforts are increasingly targeting young people.
“A few years ago, minors made up about two to three percent of our new counterterrorism investigations,” Burgess said. “Last year, however, the figure was closer to 15%. And perhaps more worryingly, these young people are more intense in their extremism.”
Burgess’ full speech is available here. The reason for its existence is explained in the text: Burgess witnessed another Australian intelligence agency being falsely accused of an unlawful act, at considerable cost to individuals and the organization.
“This case taught me how difficult it can be for a secret organization to defend itself, even when it has done nothing wrong – it is assumed that if you are in the shadows, you are in the shadow.”
Burgess expressed the hope that this speech represents a step into the sunlight that allows the public to better appreciate and understand ASIO’s work. ®