Home Affairs chief Pezzullo decries rise of the 'digital industrial complex'

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Home Affairs chief Pezzullo decries rise of the 'digital industrial complex'

Cyber tsar worried about "connectivity without values".

The head of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, has broadsided US platforms like Google, Facebook and other social media providers, likening them to a “digital industrial complex” that subverts democratic institutions and social cohesion.

Addressing the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last night on the “seven gathering storms” surrounding Australia’s national security over the next decade – two of which are information technology centric – Pezzullo said Australians will now likely see “regular attacks on our elections”.

The comments, made on the cusp of state and federal polls, paint a grim picture of “political warfare and subversion, espionage and disinformation” that Pezzullo said were “taking on new forms, especially in this highly connected age”.

The security chief’s speech is significant because it is the first time Pezzullo has publicly articulated his view on the national security environment since securing the passage of highly contentious legislation to control the use of encryption in Australia.

The new laws are bitterly opposed by the Australian technology sector, especially software and security application developers, who fear their products will become unsalable because they cannot legally guarantee government anti-encryption backdoors have not been fitted.

Australia’s biggest software exporters, including Atlassian and Cargowise, have taken a direct stand against the laws which were publicly ridiculed at the giant RSA security conference in the US.

While Pezzullo conspicuously made no mention of the cryptography laws in his speech, he did double down on his agency’s and the wider government’s stance that technology providers, domestic or foreign, must operate within the bounds of the law and regulation irrespective of their so-called disruptive power.

No interest like self interest

Citing “the spread of disinformation for geostrategic purposes, and deliberate attempts to fracture our social cohesion and unity” Pezzullo called out – without naming brands – social media providers as essentially conflicted and confected.

“Compounding this risk is the rise of social media and the ‘digital industrial complex’, whose proponents and beneficiaries have managed to seduce many with the false belief that connectivity without values enables the untainted expression of ‘popular will’  (free of the taint of power and manipulation) and creates a platform for a supposedly ‘authentic’ expression of self,” Pezzullo said.

“Instead, connectivity has become a new site of power, monetised for the enrichment of the self-interested proponents of its supposedly liberating qualities.”

Those comments represent the polar opposite of the optimism expressed by policymakers around decade ago when social media was touted the vanguard of spreading democratic values from the West into authoritarian regimes like Iran via avenues like Twitter.

One rather obvious question left hanging was that if the likes of Facebook and Google do effectively help enable what amounts to digitised foreign interference and electoral sabotage, are political manipulators getting the results they are aiming for?

As non-Western observers and critics of social media ‘influence’ like Ryaadh Minty and Evgeny Morosov have observed some time ago, there can be distinct downsides for those copping a dose of supposedly spontaneous public expression.

Prospects of cyberattack “more plausibly likely”

On the cyber front, Pezzullo again pressed home the prevailing Five Eyes doctrine that the damage foreign attacks can wreak on digitised critical infrastructure is increasing and needs to be addressed with better protection – albeit with an important distinction: the need for a cost to be meted out to miscreants.

“The negligible imposition of costs for malicious conduct in the cyber domain will embolden yet more malicious conduct—which is ever ratcheting up, and which will, in the 2020s, make the cyberattacks of the past decade seem like the first dogfights in the earliest days of aerial combat,” Pezzullo said.

“Our traditional ways of thinking about deterrence and defence simply do not map directly across to the cyber realm.” 

Pezzullo specifically called out “a cyberattack with economy-wide ramifications, targeting the nation’s financial, energy, water or transportation systems” as a realistic prospect and said “much more needs to be done in this area.”

China rhetoric megaphone fitted with volume and pitch control

Usually no Home Affairs cyber speech is ever complete without reference to the Middle Kingdom’s efforts to modernise using telecommunications and networking technology, but on this front Pezzullo appears to have downshifted to a less-is-more technique on cyber etiquette suggestions to Beijing.

Ever the history buff, the Home Affairs chief observed that in the post-cold war period “we did not anticipate how Eurasia would emerge in the 21st Century as an increasingly coherent and salient strategic system, a hundred years after Mackinder set out his thesis that this would happen.”

“We are seeing the deliberate use of investment, industry and research policies to create strategic advantage and technological superiority for the purposes of Great Power competition, which will intensify in the 2020s,” he said before adding a heavy positive emphasis to Chinese ascendancy.

“Notwithstanding these trends, it cannot be stressed often enough that China’s rise has been the most peaceful of any Great Power in 500 years – and all have a stake in ensuring that this remains the case,” Pezzullo said.

With Australian technology exports on the nose in the US and Europe thanks to some questionable laws, Australian coal stuck in port at customs in China and a domestic economy barely clinging to growth, a little temperance and optimism might go some way.

“Lest it be thought that this represents a sinister and cynical 'dark view' of humanity, let me stress that I am a strategic optimist,” Pezzullo said.

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