Tuesday, 3 March 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020
In talking about appropriations, I would like to talk tonight about the investment that the nation needs to make in certain aspects of our national security. Whether many Australians recognise it or not, our democracy is under threat, and it is a serious threat. It's not just the threat of armed invasion, which is a distant one at this point in time, or the ongoing threat of terrorism; it is a more insidious, incremental and corrosive process, and one that I think we must urgently address with capability and mandates for our agencies.
I think most people would accept that the quality of democracy can be determined by the educational standards of our people, the diversity and efficacy of the sources of information we have, and the facility with which high standards of debate and discussion take place. Whilst serving here, we get a unique perspective on that. Certainly being the member for a region that's so diverse and large, and also being a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, observing the evolution of the means, control and content in the communication of information, have given me a particular perspective on this issue. The one thing I would say initially is that our education system plays an important role in this. It's never been more important, and I think there are areas that need to be addressed fairly urgently.
One thing that I've noticed is an increasing lack of knowledge about the nature of our democratic system, how it works and the different levels of government. I think we do need a civics component in our school curriculum to address this level of ignorance. Along the way, though, our kids need to be armed with the ability to be discerning in the sources of information they rely on and to learn the importance of critical analysis and thinking. That would also help our economic strength, I believe, as the driver of innovation is disputation and contestability. One of my favourite quotes is from Albert Einstein, who once said: 'Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, simulating progress and giving birth to evolution.' The wellspring of imagination is questioning what you were told and testing the basis of it. That's a critical skill our kids need in order to navigate a world that's now brimming with disinformation and to win and create the jobs of the future. Knowledge is transforming so quickly and the ability to access it has been so revolutionised that an early learning priority has to be on these cognitive aspects as well as the fundamentals. Armed with those skills and forewarned to question and test, our people can take on the information threats that I am referring to.
The first issue that limits our ability to contest these areas in these spaces is the structure of our mainstream media at the present time. Studies have shown that we have the fourth-highest concentration of media in the world, with two of the countries in front of us being China and Egypt, whose media is dominated by government ownership, so that's not a very desirable space to be in. No doubt many had hoped that news would be democratised by the rise of social media, and there was some reason for this hope. But what we have seen is that social media has become a vehicle for information warfare by state intelligence agencies, like the Russian GRU, or self-selecting cycles of networked misinformation. This has now reached industrial scale, fuelled by sophisticated and highly produced 'deep fake' materials. Anyone who wants to understand the extent of this, I recommend reading the US Senate intelligence committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. The three volumes of that report deal with their involvement and penetration of the integrity of the IT system and social media, and also the government reaction to the information that became available.
In the US election case study, what we've seen emerge is the unholy alliance between Russia and front organisations like Cambridge Analytica. Information is out there about their links to Russian finance, through Alfa Bank; the fact that they were drawing on assistance—to design and employ algorithms and materials—from those Russian sources; and, through Facebook, using personal data that's been compromised. In fact, Cambridge Analytica had about 5,000 data points on every US voter during the election and was able to then target that with algorithms to develop psychographic pictures of those 'persuadables' that they needed to influence to create an electoral outcome.
As well as that Russian finance and Russian intelligence involvement, we've seen Russian private companies, such as the Special Technology Center and the Internet Research Agency based in St Petersburg, allied to the bot factory that is based in St Petersburg—and also using Eastern European organised-crime fronts to prosecute this information warfare campaign. Even in our own 2019 election, it appears that there may have been some sources of this type of information coming from organised crime elements in Eastern Europe. In the US, one example was the Vets for Trump Facebook site, which in fact had been taken over by organised crime elements in Macedonia.
Conservative politics in the UK, the US and Australia have been plugging into this through Cambridge Analytica, and obviously there's an advantage to be gained from that, but I would caution all political parties to be very careful about how they embrace these materials. Some of it, of course, is based on aggressively pursuing a line of operation—as in the case of the GRU, which seeks to disrupt and discredit liberal democracy in general—and using social media to help network and fuel extreme-right-wing groups, but also manipulating confrontations with other social groups. In the US, this included the Black Lives Matter group.
During the 2019 Australian election, we saw an adapted version of these techniques using the Facebook vehicle to purvey sophisticated material misrepresenting Labor policy, claiming that Labor intended to introduce a death tax and would tax pensioners, as well as a lot of character assassination material on Bill Shorten. That technique had actually been pioneered by the GRU in operations in Estonia, Georgia and the Ukraine, and against Hillary Clinton in the US—but also against other Republican candidates who were opponents of Donald Trump. So those pioneered techniques have been deployed in many cases, and it's a cheap and easy thing for the Russian GRU to experiment with. And, as I say, they are quite determined in their line of operation to undermine liberal democracy. If people want to get a better appreciation for that, I recommend they have a look at a couple of documentaries which have been aired recently—one that's available on Netflix, called The Great Hack; and a very extensive documentary called Active Measures, which explains the whole history of how Russian intelligence operations have evolved in this space.
A key difference in Australia was that, instead of the money trail leading to Russian oligarchs or organised crime, there was the unholy influence of the $80 million that was injected by Clive Palmer, which we've learnt more about since that time. We also need more explanations as to precisely why Clive Palmer's spending pattern changed during the campaign and his relationship to, perhaps, these social media activities. That certainly does need more explanation and looking into.
Of course, the Russians are assiduously trying to influence the current US election process; that has been highlighted. But their techniques have been carefully studied by other nations, such as Iran, who are similarly inclined to interfere in Western elections. The temptation is there for both sides of politics to turn a blind eye to such interference and tactics if they advantage them, but we have to resist that temptation lest we become witting, deliberately, or unwitting tools of foreign intelligence services. We've devoted a great deal of attention through our Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security—I've seen a lot of this—to legislation designed to defeat malign foreign influence, but we are letting our guard down on these techniques.
During the current disaster season, we witnessed more examples of this, with the use of bots to promote the lie that the fires were all started by arsonists and that the scale of the fires was the result of failures to do hazard reduction because greenies stop these from happening. Eden-Monaro was the epicentre of these fires, and it all began for us with the North Black Range ignition on 26 November, caused by dry lightning strike—as were almost all the subsequent ignitions in our region. There were a lot of characteristics of that bot campaign that suggested that perhaps Russians were at work in that one as well, but certainly these bot techniques are something we have to come to grips with, whoever is the source of them.
Australians used to take pride in our bulldust and bulldust artist radar and our ability to identify and dismiss ratbags. This has become more difficult with the compromise of our sources of information and the highly produced deepfake material we can see on our Facebook streams. I'm talking here about actual digital manipulation, enhancement and creation of video and other photographic materials. We need to develop new skills to test what we hear and see without falling into the trap of becoming overly apathetic and sceptical. Having fact-checking and publishing capability within the ABC with their partnership with RMIT is one of the good ways that we can achieve this, as it is providing a place where people can go and depend on what they see and hear there. Regularly checking out Media Watch is also pretty invaluable. Beyond that, I urge people to take everything they see in their social media feeds and even what they see in the mainstream media these days with a massive bucket of salt. Try to cross-reference things that have sparked a reaction for you.
In my view, we also need to engage in urgent legal measures to enhance personal data protection laws. We saw in relation to the US election in 2016 the Cambridge Analytica team sitting in an office space with Facebook and supplying all of that personal data without the permission or knowledge of those people who own that data or who are the source of it. In a building in San Antonio they ran Operation Alamo to great effect, but it was deeply misleading and misinforming information that was produced and distributed through those means. So there is a great responsibility also on those social media companies to be more active and to be more vigilant in working with our democracies to defeat those serious threats to the quality and the nature of our democracies. So I think we have to look at more rigorous requirements on social media companies, with very robust penalties.
I think serious electoral reform is also required to prevent the financial manipulation of our democracy by figures like Clive Palmer or any other source, foreign or domestic, that would deploy resources that just completely distort our processes. But I also come back to appropriations and think that our agencies need to be mandated and empowered to track and defeat more effectively the sources and techniques that we have seen that the GRU pioneered but which, as I said, other nations are looking at very closely. We need to enlist the support of the technology companies in that effort as well. And there are some significant tools that have been developed there within the Five Eyes context that will help us to interrogate big data. The big challenge of modern times is big data and how we need the skills of those who write algorithms and interrogate algorithms to be available to our nations to defeat these threats and take seriously the potential impact of them. Noting, of course, what the Russians were able to do in relation to compromising US election IT, we do need a lot of infrastructure security as well not just for industrial espionage but to make sure that we continue our vital work on cybersecurity posture, notwithstanding that we're less exposed than the US system.
The first volume after that report I mentioned that was produced by the US Senate intelligence committee focused on what was done with their IT systems. In fact, the Russians had managed to penetrate all 50 states of the United States with the ability to alter individual voter data without, at the time, any federal or state authority being aware of it. This can show you the scale of the problem that we can face.
So we need to know what is going on out there, and our agencies are struggling to keep up with some of the demands of the sorts of industrial espionage and the activities that are stealing personal data right across the world. We have just seen revelations in the US of how sources from China accessed over a billion data points relating to credit and health issues, which we know can potentially be used in all sorts of circumstances: in creating intelligence operations, in creating pressure on individuals and creating influence in our societies. So that is absolutely critical.
I also assert that, within the Five Eyes context, we have to work together. There's a lot of opportunity now to work together to crack the nut on quantum computing in particular. That is really the Holy Grail in dealing with the big data challenge. I was privileged to visit the quantum computing labs at the University of New South Wales and Michelle Simmons's wonderful team there. We have to also make sure that her work is secure. We know that, for example, in China they are building a complete university devoted only to quantum computing research and they're bringing back all of their talent to focus on that effort because they understand how critical this will be to our future. We do need to invest in these things and take them seriously, because the truth is worth fighting for if we are to preserve our democracy.