Australia’s spy agency recently disrupted an attempt by a foreign government to interfere in an Australian election, with its boss warning of “pervasive and multifaceted” threats.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess delivered the third annual threat assessment in Canberra on Wednesday night.
Along with warning of an increased threat of foreign interference in the lead up to the federal election, Mr Burgess also sounded the alarm on how the Covid-19 pandemic has sent online radicalism into “overdrive” and revealed that foreign spies are using WhatsApp and dating apps to target “employees of interest”.
Mr Burgess revealed that the spy agency had recently uncovered and prevented a “foreign interference plot in the lead-up to an election in Australia”. He did not reveal which election this was, or which foreign entity was suspected of being involved.
“I’m not going to identify the jurisdiction because we are seeing attempts at foreign interference at all levels of government, in all states and territories,” Mr Burgess said.
The plot involved a “wealthy individual” who maintained direct and deep connections with a foreign government and its intelligence agencies, who Mr Burgess dubbed “the puppeteer”.
“This agent of interference has roots in Australia but did the bidding of offshore masters, knowingly, and covertly seeking to advance the interests of the foreign power and, in the process, undermine Australia’s sovereignty,” he said.
This individual hired a person to enable foreign interference operations and used an offshore bank account to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for operating expenses, according to Mr Burgessm who described the operation as a “foreign interference startup” with a key performance indicator of “secretly shaping the jurisdiction’s political scene to benefit the foreign power”.
The campaign involved identifying candidates in the election who either supported the interests of the foreign government or who were seen to be vulnerable to inducements and cultivation, with the “puppeteer” using existing relationships to select the target.
They then plotted ways to boost the candidates chances of being elected through support, favourable news stories and other forms of assistance, Mr Burgess said, with the candidates in question having no idea they were being targeted.
ASIO stepped in and used a “suite of measures” to disrupt the plot, including defensive briefings with the candidates, interviews with the perpetrators, targeted intelligence activities, visa cancellations and law enforcement, the spy boss said.
Mr Burgess said espionage and foreign interference is now a bigger threat to Australia than terrorism.
“The threat is pervasive, multifaceted and, if left unchecked, could do serious damage to our sovereignty, values and national interest,” he said.
“Multiple countries are seeking to conduct espionage against us – and not just those countries that might be considered our traditional adversaries. In some instances, espionage is conducted by countries we consider friends – friends with sharp elbows and voracious intelligence requirements.”
The ongoing pandemic has also increased the risk of radicalisation and cyber-enabled espionage, with Australians being more isolated and spending more time online, he said.
“The internet is the world’s single most potent and powerful incubator of extremism,” Mr Burgess said.
“Online radicalisation is nothing new, but Covid-19 sent it into overdrive. Isolated individuals spent more time online, exposed to extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
Foreign spies are also utilising apps such as WhatsApp, Tinder, Bumble and Hinge to seek information from government employees, he said.
“In the last two years, thousands of Australians with access to sensitive information have been targeted by foreign spies using social media profiles. These spies are adept at using the internet for their recruitment efforts,” Mr Burgess said.
“On any of the popular social media or internet platforms, they make seemingly innocuous approaches – such as job offers. This then progresses to direct messaging on different, encrypted platforms, or in-person meetings before a recruitment pitch is made.
“It’s an easy way for foreign intelligence services to target employees of interest.”
It was also revealed this week that an unnamed Australia media company had been targeted by a Chinese state-affiliated hacking group, with passwords and data stolen within hours of the Log4j software vulnerability being revealed in December last year.
Mr Burgess said the “overwhelming majority” of breaches are foreseeable and avoidable.
“While some of these are seriously damaging, many others that are breathlessly called ‘cyber-attacks’ in the media are not compromised at all – they are reconnaissance missions; if the digital doors are locked, the intruder moves on and tries somewhere else,” he said.
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