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Op-Ed: Espionage, the commodity — How INT is hitting on social media

Australia’s ASIO domestic intelligence agency has taken the unusual step of issuing a warning to the public about foreign spies using social media networks. This targeting of individuals and businesses is pretty straightforward – Who has access to what information? Who knows specific information? Targets can be political or business operations, as well as more obvious things like technologies, etc.
Recruits are valued for their information. That’s interesting because according to ASIO, some Australian politicians are being groomed for recruitment. The Australian public wouldn’t put too high a value on them, but evidently, someone does.
This warning comes against the backdrop of a conviction of a former CIA agent who was recruited on LinkedIn and many other cases that show up pretty regularly.
To clarify a bit:
• Espionage is big money, and some people like big money a lot.
• Information is currency.
• Recruiters “invest” in money earners, as well as for intelligence purposes.
If this is sounding very like a commodities market, that’s because it is. Information is always valuable to someone, provided it’s current. So there’s a fairly high turnover in information across wide areas of interest.
Many intelligence operatives also collect information for commercial values. These entrepreneurial spies can make very big money. (That may or may not be popular with their agencies, but it doesn’t stop them grabbing the cash.) You may think your business isn’t particularly relevant, but it can be.
A few words can reliably indicate a market move, for example. They get the money; you carry the can for any breaches of confidence or other likely reactions.
Lukewarm response from social media
ASIO reports that some social media platforms haven’t been very cooperative. While not of itself too surprising, there is an issue for the social media platforms which they appear to have overlooked. They are themselves major sitting duck targets. Getting some help from security agencies, or at least being on speaking terms, might be a very good idea.
Just in case anyone needs to be told:
• Social media back end operations can be very vulnerable. No internet security professional assumes any system is invulnerable.
• A lot of internal trash can appear in the form of malware or the aptly named spyware, for example.
• Commercial platforms are at a severe disadvantage against state actors. Big as some social media platforms are, the state actors can knock out whole countries.
• Cambridge Analytica aren’t the only ones who know how to access user data and manage it in bulk. A data breach could incur serious legal liabilities around the world.
• The people on the other end of the intelligence operations aren’t obliged to be nice. Many of them aren’t. You might well be chatting to someone who’s just taken a break from summary executions to have a bit of a natter with you.
Users, look out; this situation can get quite dangerous
Users should also know that absolutely anything goes in modern intelligence. Those recruited will find themselves working for some pretty hard-case operators.
James Bond, you probably won’t be. Thrills, excitement, money, sure, but also deaths, extortion, blackmail, and other fun things. Try sticking a dollar value on that.
The risk is real enough. The warning is appropriate. Be warned.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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