Battlefield internet: AU joins fight for online hearts and minds

Published on the 05/07/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton


Australain defence_cyberwarfare

Business, government, civil libertarians and advertisers in battle for online space…

The Australian Defence Force has announced a dramatic shift in focus with the sudden launch of a new cyberwarfare unit – the Information Warfare Division – charged with protecting Australia’s military infrastructure and identifying valuable foreign cyber-targets.

Taking a leaf from Russian and Israeli playbooks, the division will be responsible for military cyber operations, intelligence, joint electronic warfare, information operations and military space operations.

“This is a result of the changing character of contemporary conflict,” Cyber Security Minister Dan Tehan said on Friday.

“The division is authorised to conduct self-defense, passive defense, active defense and offensive operations,” he added.

The unit will initially consist of 100 keyboard warriors, mushrooming to 990 within a decade.

The division will be headed Deputy Chief Information Warfare, Major General Marcus Thompson, and consist of four branches – Information Warfare Capability, C4 and Battle Management Capability, Capability Support Directorate and the Joint Cyber Unit.

The Prime Minister announced his intention to address the issue in January, saying that “cyber-security is at the very forefront of what we are doing to keep Australia safe… With the efforts we are taking to protect Australians online, to ensure that our critical infrastructure is safe from cyber-attack, this is the new frontier of warfare, it’s the new frontier of espionage, it’s the new frontier of many threats to Australian families, to governments, to businesses.”

In response, opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused the Prime Minister of “grandstanding on national security”.

No word on the unit’s conformity to general army physical requirements, nor detail on exactly what the “active offensive operations” pertained to.

Given the Turnbull government’s apparent preoccupation with security, the creation of the unit comes as a surprise to few. The government used the recent closed-door Five Eyes talks to demand greater powers to pressure local tech companies into handing over users’ private encrypted messages, and urged other GCSB countries – the US, UK, Canada and NZ – to follow suit.

That move was been greeted with dismay from the 83 organisations and individuals who published an open letter cautioning the involved intelligence agencies over their cavalier approach to encryption and urging “additional dialogue in a transparent forum with meaningful public participation”.

“While the challenges of modern day security are real, such proposals threaten the integrity and security of general purpose communications tools relied upon by international commerce, the free press, government’s, human rights advocates, and individuals around the world,” the statement reads.

“We urge you, as leaders in the global community, to remember that encryption is a critical tool of general use. It is neither the cause nor the enabler of crime or terrorism…. We therefore ask you to prioritise the safety and security of individuals by working to strengthen the integrity of communications and systems. As an initial step, we ask that you continue any engagement on this topic in a multi-stakeholder forum that promotes public participation and affirms the protection of human rights.”

Globally, governments are ramping up their intrusions into the online space. On Friday Germany approved a controversial law that forces social media platforms to police ‘hate speech’, under threat of fines up to €50m.

The law, known as the Network Enforcement Act, applies to operators of internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and says that ‘criminal contents’ must be removed or blocked within 24 hours after receipt of a complaint. The operators must also publish a report on their handling of complaints on their homepage.

The German Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, is quoted as saying, apparently without a hint of irony, that the law will “make sure that everyone can express their opinions without being offended or threatened”.

“[T]hat is not a limitation,” he says, “but the prerequisite for the freedom of expression of all.”

The law comes into effect this October.

Social media platforms are increasingly feeling pressure to police their users on behalf governments. And while such pressure can often be resisted, when advertisers start to complain, corporations act.

Last Wednesday tech titans Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced the formation of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a move to “continue to make our hosted consumer services hostile to terrorists and violent extremists.”

“The spread of terrorism and violent extremism is a pressing global problem and a critical challenge for us all,” reads a joint statement published by the new group.

“We take these issues very seriously, and each of our companies have developed policies and removal practices that enable us to take a hard line against terrorist or violent extremist content on our hosted consumer services. We believe that by working together, sharing the best technological and operational elements of our individual efforts, we can have a greater impact on the threat of terrorist content online.”

While the move may well be high minded, it does follow YouTube’s ongoing issue with advertiser complaints that their brands are being associated with offensive and inappropriate content, a situation which has resulted in advertising boycotts from high value brands such as AT&T and Verizon.

Just yesterday YouTube refunded advertisers whose spots played next to “extremist and illegal content”. Among those was the UK government, which has now withdrawn their advertising and summoned Google executives to the Cabinet Office to explain themselves.

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