It’s no secret digital technologies have changed everything. These were once just predictions of the future. Now their rapid emergence onto the market means that governments, businesses and citizens expect high speed, secure access to the Internet, 24x7 online services, and near-instant global sharing of information as the norm.
It’s exactly this enthusiastic embrace of digital technologies that is not only powerfully represented in the 289 million Twitter users and nearly one-and-a-half billion Facebook accounts, but also offers a new route to exploitation by threat groups. From extremism, to foreign state espionage, cyber threats, or proliferation activities, the use of online means to recruit and task vulnerable citizens is adding an unwelcome burden on the high-pressure workload of national security agencies.
This is why it is more vital than ever to stay one step ahead of security threats through a paradigm shift in the core operating model of these government agencies. Traditionally, national security agencies knew what data they needed and where to find it. Today, gaining real-time insights from a large, fragmented and ever-changing pool of data is like looking for a needle in a haystack—one that is expanding at an ever-increasing pace. Current approaches to the collection, analysis, development and use of intelligence from open-source information (including social media, websites, blogs, online news, Web fora, and similar) are quickly becoming outdated as technology evolves at break neck speed.
Today, national security agencies’ operational advantages are at risk from rapid advances in technology. Further, the maturity of opponents’ technical security tradecraft, and the struggle to keep up with these advancements is omnipresent across all regions of the world. Violent extremists have operational security (OPSEC) manuals and even a 24-hour help desk to aid in the worldwide recruitment and conduct of terror, an unprecedented and frightening prospect.
Following the San Bernardino attacks that left 14 people dead, it was reported that authorities had failed to detect social media posts sympathetic to violent jihad on one of the killer's accounts during the immigration screening processes. Whilst a task such as immigration screening may seem instinctive for officers in such a role, without the time or resources for deep and accurate analysis of every case that arises, the ability to use advanced analytics to integrate covertly-acquired intelligence with open-source information becomes a highly limited proposition for national security agencies.
Governments are slowly but surely becoming aware of the increasing difficulty in combating digital threats, and recognise a cross-agency picture is required. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has echoed this and recommended the harnessing of communication, marketing and social media experts to fight new propaganda challenges. They’re also investing AUD $21 million to build a stronger social media counter-narrative capability.
But where the disruption to market is so high and the outcome of not acting can be so devastating, the call to action must go beyond recognition and awareness alone. Governments need to enhance their capability to tackle traditional threats through smart investment in digital technologies to develop rapid response to either prevent future incidents or more effectively respond to those already underway.
What can be done about it?
Step 1. Use digital technologies to enhance information-sharing and collaboration
Public safety technology can supplement existing approaches to information-sharing and collaboration to accelerate and enhance intelligence. Advanced digital and collaborative tools enable national security agencies to pre-empt threats, target violent extremists, and counter-extremist narratives online.
The ability to collect, analyse and develop actionable intelligence from data shared between multiple agencies significantly increases capabilities without the need for additional resources. Using digital tools to share such data can elicit a response more effortlessly, securely and effectively than by sending and receiving unstructured text requests. Matching data models, ontologies and taxonomies, as well as the auto-processing of data and use of joint analytical tools can greatly increase the speed and scope of information-sharing. Taking advantage of secure, private cloud solutions can enable national security agencies to benefit from a larger, consolidated pool of data (as appropriate under law) to identify threats or avenues of enquiry.
Step 2. Seize digital transformation opportunities
There is no single solution to combat existing and emerging threats, but by using the same emerging technologies that opponents are using, national security agencies can enhance operational effectiveness. Islamic State are currently using social media to reach out virtually to promote and recruit nationally and internationally and collaborate with potential future members. With 46 per cent of social media users actively discussing news items online, it is easy to see why digital makes an attractive radicalisation platform. But this vast data pool can be exploited by national security agencies, too. Historically, no-one questioned the effective analysis of call data records; today, social media and other digital and online sources of information are being assessed as ways to affect predictive policing or intelligence activities in the future.
Applying public safety technologies that make use of a wide range of content analytics (including sentiment analysis, word analysis, opinion mining and natural language processing) to open-source information can help prevent and detect threats.
National security agencies operate in a digital world where vast amounts of relevant information reside in the public domain. It is not a case of whether to use any or all of a range of public safety technologies—but rather how to employ them in the right way to manage the growing diversity of both threats and data. By being pro-active and innovative in their usage of data and by adopting new digital technologies government leaders can support safe and secure nations and enhance national prosperity for the benefit of all.
Joshua Kennedy White is Accenture Australia’s Intelligence & Homeland Security Lead.