Nations running online foreign influence campaigns have turned to dating apps to recruit people privy to sensitive information, according to the director general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the nation’s security agency directed against external threats and a key partner in the Five Eyes security alliance.
“In the last two years, thousands of Australians with access to sensitive information have been targeted by foreign spies using social media profiles,” revealed ASIO supremo Mike Burgess during his third annual threat assessment address on Wednesday.
Two years ago, such approaches were most often observed on professional social networking platforms. Burgess said ASIO now needs to track the dating apps Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, because foreign spies have started to use them, too. WhatsApp has also been targeted.
Burgess said use of such apps is one reason attempts at foreign interference have become the threat that consumes most ASIO resources – ahead of terror. The director general explained that foreign interference involves “the hidden hand of a foreign state” acting in ways that are contrary to Australia’s interests.
It can be [difficult] for a secret organisation to defend itself – it’s assumed that if you’re in the shadows, you’re shadowy.
He then outlined such a campaign that involved “a wealthy individual who maintained direct and deep connections with a foreign government and its intelligence agencies [and] did the bidding of offshore masters, knowingly and covertly seeking to advance the interests of the foreign power.”
Burgess called this person “the puppeteer” and said he headed “a foreign interference startup” that had a key performance indicator of “secretly shaping the jurisdiction’s political scene to benefit the foreign power.”
The puppeteer planned a campaign to :
- Hire a local employee who began identifying candidates likely to run in the election and who “either supported the interests of the foreign government or who were assessed as vulnerable to inducements and cultivation.”
- Plot ways of advancing the candidates’ political prospects through generous support, placing favourable stories in foreign language news platforms, and providing other forms of assistance.
- Hire PR and marketing agencies to assist the candidate, to create a sense of indebtedness they could later exploit.
- Use an offshore bank account to pay for the above.
- Keep the candidate in the dark about the puppeteer’s role controlling the employee, and that the foreign government was the source of funds.
ASIO prevented the plot from being executed, but Burgess opined that sometimes such plots work and candidates are elected without knowing the nature of their backers. When that happens, Burgess suggested the following scenario can unfold.
Burgess also bemoaned that the internet has become “the world’s single most potent and powerful incubator of extremism” and that isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic sent online radicalisation “into overdrive.”
One result is a substantial cohort of people with new grievances related to the pandemic and its management by governments.
Online radicalisation efforts conducted by extremist groups has also increased, in ASIO’s assessment. And those efforts are increasingly targeting the young.
“A few years ago, minors represented around two to three per cent of our new counter-terrorism investigations,” Burgess said. “In the last year, though, the figure’s been closer to 15 per cent. And perhaps more disturbingly, these young people are more intense in their extremism.”
Burgess’s full speech can be found here. The reason for its existence is explained in the text: Burgess witnessed another Australian intelligence agency falsely accused of an illegal act, at considerable cost to individuals and the organisation.
“The affair taught me how difficult it can be for a secret organisation to defend itself, even when it’s done nothing wrong – it’s assumed that if you’re in the shadows, you’re shadowy.”
Burgess expressed his hope that this speech represents a step into the sunlight that makes the public better appreciate and understand ASIO’s work. ®