Weaponisation of social media, global cyber disruption, zombie spies: they sound like science fiction but that’s Australia’s new battlefield, in which our IT capability will matter as much as conventional weaponry.
Information Warfare Division — the Orwellian name conjures up visions of the military conducting dark deeds in an age of global disruption, where malware and social media are powerful weapons.
And that is exactly the role Australia intends for the cyber warriors being recruited to fill the ranks of this, the latest addition to the country’s armed forces.
The Australian Government made a radical shift in defence strategy this year while public debate was focused on the politics of its $89 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
With discussion concentrated on boats and subs, the formation of the Information Warfare Division in July hardly rated a mention. There was certainly no flag waving for what represented a declaration of cyber warfare by Australia.
Part of the Information Warfare Division’s mission is to develop cyber weaponry to attack Australia’s adversaries.
These attacks could include the Australian military penetrating another country’s IT to disrupt or to deny the enemy access to their systems.
In simple terms, it could mean stopping submarines dead in the water, preventing missile launches and grounding aircraft.
And ransomware attacks such as Petya and WannaCry are a window to what could be unleashed for military purposes.
Professor Craig Valli, director of ECU’s Security Research Institute, says the cyber battlefield now crosses into every other theatre of war.
“There are five domains of warfare now,” Valli says.
“There is traditional land, there’s sea, there’s air, there’s space and there’s cyber space.
“The fifth domain has a quirk in that all other domains depend on the fifth domain.”
As one military expert puts it, there is much that can be done to “hassle, harass, interdict, subvert, undermine and damage” an adversary in the skirmishing before open conflict.
This includes using social media as a weapon in propaganda, misdirection, recruitment and corrupting political processes.
Australia has been on the cyber defensive for decades, focused on guarding its systems from attack.
The formation of the Information Warfare Division under the command of a Major General with a PhD in cyber security and background in the special forces marks a much more aggressive strategy.
The Information Warfare Division, now led by Maj. Gen. Marcus Thompson, is also tasked with developing new defensive weapons, gathering intelligence and protecting military assets.
Australia’s conventional military assets will eventually grow to include the navy’s 12 new offshore patrol boats, nine new frigates and 12 new submarines — all carrying an array of complex IT systems.
West Australian companies have faced an uphill battle in the form of domestic politics to grab a piece of the offshore patrol boat, submarine and frigate construction pie, despite a strong track record in naval shipbuilding.
Henderson-based Austal is the only foreign shipbuilder since the American War of Independence to build warships as a Prime contractor for the US Navy.
On a wet and wild day late in July this year, the company created another little piece of history.
Austal chief executive officer David Singleton watched with pride as apprentice Ricardo De Oliveira helped the Minister for Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, weld on a small steel plate during the ceremonial keel laying for a Pacific Patrol Boat.
The boat is the first of 19 of the 39.5 metre steel hull vessels Austal is building for Pacific Island nations for delivery between 2018 and 2023.
Australia is providing the vessels under the $306 million Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement (PPB-R) Project and it is the first major element of the Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
Singleton says the PPB-R Project is an early indication of the benefits set to flow from the Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
“This project is anticipated to employ more than 200 people directly at Austal and hundreds more through our growing Australian supply chain, providing outstanding career opportunities for both qualified workers and apprentices across the country,” he says.
“We’ve already employed more than 30 new apprentices so far this year and we anticipate having 100 on board by the end of 2017.”
Job creation and the up-skilling of WA’s workforce in trades and in disciplines like engineering and IT are constant themes for Austal and its CEO.
Singleton held senior roles with BAE Systems, one of the world’s leading defence companies, before coming to Australia.
He was also chief executive of Alenia Marconi Systems, a joint venture between BAE Systems and Finmeccanica that employed 7500 people and was a leader in naval warfare and air defence systems.
The former UK Ministry of Defence researcher understands the skills and expertise needed to build modern naval vessels.
The Naval Shipbuilding Plan sets out some of the details of what is required of the vessels as well as the price tags. The plan estimates the future frigate program is worth $35 billion in capital investment.
“By 2035, around half the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region where Australia’s interests are most engaged,” the plan states.
“The primary purpose of the future frigate is to detect, track and, if required, destroy enemy submarines.”
The frigates will rely on IT systems for their protection and in turn those IT systems are potential targets for cyber attack.
Austal recognises the need for that expertise and for engineers to support what Singleton sees as a national endeavour that will grow Australia’s shipbuilding capability and create cross-generational employment opportunities.
ECU and the company have formed a partnership with the aim of developing a Maritime Research and Education Institute to lead Australia in meeting the needs of the shipbuilding industry.
The partnership involves ECU’s School of Engineering — which will work with Austal on developing a maritime engineering degree – the Security Research Institute and the School of Business and Law.
Unofficial reports suggest Australia’s Information Warfare Division will start with about 100 personnel and has plans to recruit 800 more by the end of the decade as it tries to develop cyber weapons and blunt the bots.
Writing in the Defence Force Journal prior to the formation of the Information Warfare Division, Maj. Gen. Thompson proposed a framework for the development of cyber warfare capabilities and highlighted the need for the Australian Defence Force to have attacking options.
“Recognising that it is not good enough for a professional military force to be capable of only ‘taking a punch’, the ADF must also be capable of delivering active cyber effects, particularly to exploit opportunities as part of tactical action in support of local commanders,” he wrote.
“Such effects could include the design and delivery of malware, and extending the reach of the Australian Signals Directorate.
“However, the activity of ADF personnel in cyberspace will inevitably generate national sensitivity, and must occur only within a nationally-sanctioned legal and policy framework.” But the ADF is already looking to recruit some unconventional soldiers to fight increasingly unconventional battles.
Under the heading “Finding Cyber Warriors”, Maj. Gen. Thompson conceded that finding the right people to prosecute cyber warfare could mean the ADF had to “reconsider its recruiting model, physical entry standards, its pay structure, and traditional corps/ speciality structures in order to open any cyber-related trades to both new and existing personnel with the appropriate attributes”.
It's a battlefield ECU is preparing students to enter.
The University is widely acknowledged as among the best in the world in the field of cyber security and one of only two Academic Centres of Cyber Security Excellence in Australia.
Cyber security skills are in high demand with estimates there will be a global shortfall of 1.5 million cyber security professionals by 2020. Valli says top cyber security students at ECU are being recruited on six-figure salaries before they have time to complete their degrees.
“We produce 150 to 200 graduates a year with cyber security as a major or a full degree in cyber security,” he says.
“And it is nowhere near filling the gap.”
The army rolled in early on April 27, and went quickly on the attack.
Before long, hundreds of thousands had been affected; some joining the fray, others trying to distance themselves from a fight that seemed terribly familiar.
But this wasn’t a ground invasion or border skirmish, but a coordinated Twitter attack trying to undermine the lead candidate for French elections, now President Emanuel Macron.
Information had been hacked from the Macron campaign and was being leaked and promoted on Twitter, in much the same way that material from Hillary Clinton’s campaign was leaked and promoted during the election that led to Donald Trump.
As researchers from the University of Southern California discovered, by examining more than 350,000 tweets related to #MacronLeaks, around 20,000 robots or Twitter bots were driving the character attack.
The bots represented around 20 per cent of all tweeters, pushing information to human-controlled coordinated accounts that would amplify the message – and then to ordinary people considered likely to kick the story along.
It was a repeat of the Trump campaign, according to the researchers, where roughly the same proportion of bots were used to promote his message and denigrate Clinton.
What’s more, many accounts that had lain dormant since Trump’s election were now surging back into life to attack Macron.
These zombies were back, trying desperately, if unsuccessfully, to influence the French vote.
Just a few years ago, few could have predicted that social media could be weaponised in such a way.
But as social media becomes a more powerful source of news, bot armies can now drive conversations, frame news coverage, create fake stories out of nothing and – potentially – change elections.
Coupled with big data analytics that indicate the kind of voter most susceptible to bot messaging, it is a stunning new battlefield on which nations find themselves fighting.
Yet because it sounds the stuff of a Tom Clancy potboiler – zombie accounts, spyware, sleeper cells on Twitter – it risks not being taken seriously.
Professor Craig Valli sees the weaponisation of social media as a natural progression and, he warns, the march of the Twitter bots is just the beginning.
“The only thing that has changed and will continue to change in the negative aspect is the amount of chaos and entropy on the internet,” he says.
“It will be increasingly used as a means of attacking people and trying to subvert and apply soft influence.”
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