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Cyber-Enabled Foreign Influence and Interference

26 August 2021
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An Australian Approach

In recent years, we have seen a substantial rise in measures undertaken by foreign state actors that could be considered foreign interference. There has also been a notable increase in online activity that is labelled as coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Both of these trends have led to the gradual adoption of the terms like Cyber-Enabled Foreign Influence and Interference (C-E FI/I) in Australia’s academic and security community lexicon. Such terms seeks to remove the ambiguity associated with historical and popularised concepts, such as information warfare, political warfare, ‘fake news’, and mis- and disinformation. As will be elaborated on, achieving clarity when discussing this topic is paramount since addressing the issue of unwelcome foreign influence, and more importantly, interference, requires the combined efforts of government departments and agencies, alongside academia. Furthermore, it requires activities that would otherwise fall into the ‘grey zone’ of the peace-war spectrum, to be clearly defined as either influence or interference. This is the primary purpose of the conceptual framework behind C-E FI/I, and what will now be briefly introduced.

This term can be broken in to two qualifying characteristics: (1) the ‘C-E’ prefix and (2) the distinction between interference and influence. Indeed, because of this, the term is considerably more accurate than many of its predecessors (such as information warfare and political warfare). First, the ‘C-E’ prefix, an idea coined by Thomas Rid in his book Cyber War Will Not Take Place, confines the scope of C-E FI/I to activities that occurs within cyberspace (including the internet). These activities, however, may (and likely would) have implications beyond the figurative borders of cyberspace. In other words, C-E FI/I refers to any activity that occurs in cyberspace that enables broader efforts by one state to influence or interfere in another state. The aforementioned ‘or’ (as opposed to influence and interference efforts) leads to the next important feature of the C-E FI/I term.

In Australia, we are quite unique in having an unambiguous and clear definition of both influence and interference, where the two are distinguished from one another. These definitions were first introduced in 2017, by then-Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. He stated, “we will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt. That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.” A more robust description of Turnbull’s ‘three Cs’ approach has been provided by the Department of Home Affairs, since.

It is important to highlight, that not all peer-states (in fact, hardly any) choose to use the terms influence and interference in such a manner. Most prefer to use one or the other to broadly label all unwelcome activities of this nature (as the US does with interference). Alternatively, some choose to use both terms together without clear distinction (as has been done in the UK). This can understandably lead to confusion, since there are, in fact, influence efforts that are not only acceptable, but encouraged: those which fall under the traditional understanding of soft power. This is where Australia’s clear distinction between influence and interference proves invaluable. There is, however, one distinct flaw in this approach that becomes all the more apparent in cyberspace.

There is a good reason that many peer states don’t label all influence as welcome. This is because there are influence efforts, that whist still technically constituting a form of soft power, are nonetheless not in the spirit of liberal democratic values. For example, state-controlled media (opposed to state-funded media) and the overt amplification of dis- and misinformation (in particular, conspiracy theories). These activities do not meet Australia’s criteria for interference since they are certainly not covert, not really coercive, and only corrupting in the broadest sense. They are also not efforts, that as a liberal democracy, we want to be seen endorsing.

Consequently, it may be useful to view influence as binary – acceptable influence and tolerable influence. This latter category can be likened to activities aptly labelled as ‘sharp power’ by the National Endowment for Democracy (a US-based think tank), or by some as ‘grey zone’ tactics. In fact, using these two categories, in unison with interference, and in concert with a fourth category: hard power (as traditionally understood), allows us to neatly label most ‘grey zone’ tactics. In doing so, we can remove much of the ambiguity that gives these activities their ‘grey’ nature. The potential utility of this ability cannot be understated. This is since ‘grey zone’ tactics are only viable for as long as there exists an undefinable ‘grey’ space between the traditional (Western) understandings of peace and war. Once this part of the peace-war spectrum is disarticulated, states engaging in ‘grey zone’ tactics can no longer continue to use these tactics without the risk of prompting a proportionate and hostile response – or worse, a militaristic response. Thus, as the target of ‘grey zone’ tactics, if we can clearly articulate those tactics which we deem unacceptable (i.e. what our threshold is), and what is the consequence of employing such tactics, then we stand a much better chance of effectively deterring foreign actors from using them.

What does this mean for activities conducted in cyberspace? Australia is one of several states currently engaged in talks on norms in cyberspace. Whilst these talks are one effective approach in articulating the threshold between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in cyberspace, it is by no means the final solution. Importantly, there exists two very different levels of consensus among UN member states on the acceptability of different C-E FI/I activities in cyberspace: one for which there is a young but growing normative argument for the prohibition of several C-E FI/I activities, and the other for which where there exists no consensus on activities that arguably still hide in the figurative shadows of UN-sanctioned scrutiny. The reason for dissension is that discussions on norms, and international law in cyberspace, are primarily concerned with activities that occur within the physical and informational levels of the information environment (IE). Activities that occur solely within the cognitive level of the IE, remain elusive and thus are a particularly effective ‘grey zone’ tactic.

It is likely for this reason that, in the last several years, we have witnessed a rapid uptick of state actors conducting influence or interference campaigns that involve either coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and/or large-scale narrative-driven messaging – both overt and covert. Consequently, it is important to find the means to distinguish such activities into influence and interference, based on Australia’s understanding of these terms. In other words, to rid these activities of their advantageous ‘grey’ nature.

This is easier said than done, since such activities are still not well understood, let alone easily categorised. Attempts to categorise cognitive layer C-E FI/I activities are complicated by inconsistent and analytically unhelpful terminology (such as malinformation and ‘fake news’). Furthermore, these efforts are hindered by the inadequacy of many historical and existing approaches (i.e. information and political warfare). Nonetheless, it is important that these obstacles not act as an impasse to formulating an effective deterrence against such activities.

Examples such as states’ contributions to the current ‘infodemic’ and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, aptly demonstrate the relative effectiveness of coordinated inauthentic behaviour and other methods of C-E FI/I, as a ‘grey zone’ tactic. Many states (particularly democracies) do not want to see these activities become the ‘norm’ in international relations, as they exploit the inherent vulnerabilities found in democratic states, and consequently cannot easily be addressed without impeding on the freedoms of their populace. Already, C-E FI/I has put states such as the US, NZ and Australia in a challenging position, which, with time and inaction, will only become more demanding. As established in the recently published International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy, addressing issues arising from cyberspace is a whole-of-government effort, and more importantly, a team-effort for Australia’s security community. In removing the definitional ambiguity of C-E FI/I, the next step forward for Australia is the clear articulation of everyone’s roles and responsibilities in countering C-E FI/I – including the Australian Defence Force’s.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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