Can laws control cyber crime and disinformation?

Written by: (Contributed) on 10 June 2024

 

(Above: a screenshot from the home page of Israeli company STOIC,offering to create automated disinformation)

Draft legislation about fraudulent use of the internet and social media due to be introduced into the legislative process in Canberra over the next few weeks is long overdue. Australians have been targeted by on-line criminal elements and their associates for decades.

Other, related fraudulent use of on-line provision, such as Israeli firm STOIC’s work in spreading disinformation through fake social media accounts, has raised serious concerns about security-related matters and general interference inside political systems and espionage.

Draft legislation scheduled to be tabled in Canberra within weeks is set to bring the giants of the internet and social media to account and ensure they are legally liable for fraudulent and criminal activities, with compensation. The binding codes will impose strict obligations upon those who control provision. The draft legislation has followed revelations that Australians lost $2.74 billion last year in various criminal scams. (1) Social media giants including Meta, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp will also be required to establish disputes resolution procedures for victims of scams to enable accountability. (2)

The rapid escalation of the problem remains evidence that criminal elements and their associates have been quick to seize upon opportunities opened with on-line provision. In 2020 it was officially reported that Australians had lost an estimated $851 million in scams, rising to $1.8 billion in 2021 and $3.1 billion in 2022. (3)

Australians appear to have been targeted by criminal elements and their associates based off-shore largely in Asia. (4) Recent revelations about sophisticated cyber-crime facilities on the Myanmar-Thai border where computer-based workers were 'being taught about Australian culture and social media uses of Facebook, WhatsApp and dating sites', leave little to the imagination. (5)

Recent disclosures from the German police, however, have shown how Australians have been targeted by other, European criminal groups. One criminal syndicate monitored by the German police found 34,000 Australians had been defrauded more than $200 million; a decision taken by Canberra-based Australian Securities and Investments Commission leaders continued to regard the information as 'for intelligence purposes only'. (6) Victims, therefore, were not officially notified by Australian government departments. Whether the failure to disclose information by ASIC was undertaken to not compromise those 'the regulator was looking at … individuals … based in Australia … who are believed to have assisted the scammers', or for other motives, has not been divulged. (7)

It is, however, the other, related problem of shadowy players accessing personal information for profiling which remains a serious concern.

Revelations the Andrews government in Victoria used vast amounts of personal data to run a secretive program for election purposes has raised a number of concerns with far-reaching implications. (8) The Melbourne-based administration appears to have been extensively involved in intelligence-gathering about voter opinions in the six weeks prior to the November, 2022, state elections. Questions appear to have arisen about the security of large amounts of data collected and whether it could be re-used for other, non-disclosed purposes.

Disclosures surrounding a shadowy, intelligence-type organisation based in Tel Aviv, STOIC, have, however, raised serious concerns about social media being programmed to mould public opinion about the present Israeli-Gaza war. Consisting of more than five hundred Facebook and 32 Instagram accounts in the US and Canada linked to more than two thousand further profiles, the social media facilities were praising 'Israel's military actions and criticism of radical Islam and campus anti-semitism'. (9)

The STOIC organisation appears to have actively targeted political parties, ministries and municipalities together with advocacy groups, public relations campaigns and lobbyists with the specific intention of moulding public opinion in favour of the Israeli government. (10)

While the official media release from Meta regarding their closing of the STOIC websites could find links with the Israeli government, the use of proprietary companies and business fronts is common throughout the so-called 'intelligence-community'. (11) The standard practice is used to distance governments and their intelligence organisations from controversy should embarrassing disclosures occur.

While the subject did receive some limited media coverage in western and Israeli media outlets, there was no official comment from either STOIC or the Netanyahu administration in Tel Aviv; diplomatic silence would appear the order of the day for those concerned.

It was noted, nevertheless, that STOIC was 'a political marketing and business intelligence firm … using their products nefariously to manipulate various political conversations on-line'. (12) It was also noted, furthermore, that the company provided 'models for tasks generating comments, articles, social media profiles, and debugging code for bots and websites … with fears about … covert social media campaigns'. (13) 

STOIC is also believed to have contracted out its services to support the Hindutva fascist BJP party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (14) The US-Canada operation was ordered and financed by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. (15)

Covert operations, invariably, have a long history linked to intelligence agencies and diplomacy; studies of the US intelligence services conducted by former agents concluded, long ago, that, 'the CIA's primary task is not to co-ordinate the efforts of US intelligence or even to produce finished national intelligence for the policy-makers. Its job is, for better or worse, to conduct the government's covert foreign policy'. (16)

 

The use of on-line provision would appear to have broadened the scope of intelligence-gathering for covert foreign policy and provided spooks with the ability to pry into the daily lives of the mass of the world's population. Intelligence agents now how little use for opening and reading correspondence to and from those assessed as 'people of interest'. Technological developments have led to past practices being superseded and others revolutionised with on-line facilities. (17)    

Information emerging from reliable sources has revealed the US National Security Agency (NSA) sought to use the internet from its earliest days of operation and that 'the NSA's attention shifted to finding ways to exploit the global reach of Google, Microsoft, Venizon and other US technical powers … including … monitoring cell-phones'. (18)

The tracking of mobile telephones and interception of calls has become standard practice with Australian government departments. A marathon fraud court-case in the NSW Supreme Court, for example, included 'some 130 hours of conversations between the six accused men, captured during tapped phone calls or by strategically placed listening devices … as part of their national investigation into the alleged payroll fraud'. (19)  

Problems, however, arise with the shadowy links between on-line criminal activity and that of official government departments and their intelligence agencies. They would appear blurred, to state the very least. The genuine concern for defence and security considerations and downright political muck-raking, likewise, is also blurred in the eyes of some actors, whether with officially sanctioned state or non-legitimate non-state categories.

Whether forthcoming legislation to deal with the problem is effective, therefore, remains to be seen.

In light of Australia's alliance with the US and their allies, including Israel, and the Five Eyes, it would appear unlikely, however, that any moves will be taken to disturb or interfere with existing 'US interests' and their intelligence-gathering:

                                          We need an independent foreign policy!


1.     See: Fines over social media scams, The Weekend Australian, 25-26 May 2024.
2.     Ibid.
3.     AI helping hackers to scam better, Australian, 3 June 2024.
4.     Fighting Asian scammers, Australian, 30 May 2024; and, Billions stolen as Big Tech enables deepfake scams, Editorial, The Weekend Australian, 25-26 May 2024.
5.     Editorial, Weekend Australian, ibid., 25-26 May 2024.
6.     ASIC says hands were tied on scams, Australian, 5 June 2024.
7.     Ibid.
8.     Data security 'assured', Andrews team told, The Weekend Australian, 1-2 June 2024.
9.     Fake accounts of Israel tech firm deleted, Australian, 31 May 2024.
10.   Ibid.
11.   The CIA and the cult of intelligence, Victor Marchetti and John D, Marks, (London, 1976), pp. 162-181.
12.   Meta and AI say they disrupted influence operations linked to Israeli company, NBC News, 31 May 2024.
13.   Open AI says it disrupted covert influence operation by Israeli firm STOIC, The Times of Israel, 4 June 2024.
14.   Who’s behind the Israeli startup blacklisted by Meta and OpenAI?, Calcalist.com June 3, 2024
15.   Israeli influence operation highlights global disinformation industry, Cyberscoop.com, June 5, 2004
16.   The CIA and the cult of intelligence, op.cit., page 132.
17.   Ibid., page 121.
18.   The intelligence coup of the century, The Washington Post, 11 February 2020.
19.   Juror in $13m fraud case arrested, Australian, 6 June 2024.

 

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