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ASIO Chief Mike Burgess warns of espionage and online radicalization of minors via social media and dating sites.

According to the director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO), foreign spies are approaching Australian citizens on social media and online dating apps. “Spies are adept at using the internet for their recruitment efforts,” says Mike Burgess.

Burgess said that international spies are using techniques like job offers on social media platforms to lure people. “This then progresses to direct messaging on different encrypted platforms, or in-person meetings, before a recruitment pitch is made,” he said. Recently, hackers have been impersonating Lockheed Martin offering fake jobs to people online.

Burgess also said that during the pandemic, the approach switched from professional sites like LinkedIn to personal online platforms like WhatsApp.

Burgess said that ASIO is tracking suspicious activities on networking platforms like Bumble, Tinder, and Hinge. He said if something looks too good to be true, it probably is, so be careful of such phishing campaigns.

The same was also reinforced by Senator James Paterson of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

“If you’re a six, and they’re a 10, it might not be your looks that they’ve been charmed by. It might be your access to classified information,” says Paterson.

A Surge in the Online Radicalisation of Minors

Burgess also noted that after the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been an overdrive in online radicalization attempts that has been made easier as individuals are spending more time online.

He said more time online – without “circuit breakers of every day” like family, friends, social engagement, work, and more – leads to more extremism, and in some cases, it leads to radicalization and violence.

“Social media platforms, chat rooms, and algorithms are desined to join up people who share the same views, and push them material they will “like”. Its like being in an echo chamber where the echo gets louder and louder, generating cycles of exposure and reinforcement,” said Burgees.

According to ASIO, the number of young Australians being radicalized continues to rise, as the age group of minors being radicalized is dropping lower. The number of minors being subject to counter-terrorism investigation has increased to 15%, from only 2-3% last year.

“Children as young as 13 are embracing extremism…and unlike past experiences, many of these young people do not come from families where a parent or sibling already holds extreme views, said Burgess.

As a result of such radicalization, minors are taking more active roles in extremist groups both face-to-face and online platforms. Burgess also said that with such a sharp rise in minor radicalization, we can see teenagers leading extremist groups and are willing to resort to violence.

According to the statement, ASIO’s counter-terrorism investigations include more than half of the cases being minors. Some are even targeting other minors online using “grooming techniques similar to those used by pedophiles.”

“The tactics used by the extremists in these cases involved a combination of attention, flattery and friendship, which shifted to bullying and manipulation. We’ve seen young ringleaders deliberately desensitise their targets, gradually exposing them to more extreme and more violent propaganda, until the most graphic material imaginable was normalised,” says Burgess.

The Guardian also reported last year that pandemic lockdowns and time spent out of schools and offices led to a rise in extremist views among the pupils. According to a survey by the UCL Institute of Education, “95% had heard pupils express racist views, 90% had encountered homophobia or conspiracy theories.”

Burgess says ‘Good Security is Achievable”

Burgess said that “good security is achievable.” He says that it is infuriating when organizations say that their adversaries are powerful and nothing can be done to protect against threat actors.

He said this is called ‘Borg defence’ meaning resistance is futile. He said, “In my experience, resistance is rarely futile. Certainly, in the cyber field, the overwhelming majority of compromises are foreseeable and avoidable.”

ASIO Counter-Intelligence Report Details

During his speech, Burgess detailed two cases that are worth mentioning.

ASIO has mapped out a network of contacts and sources of foreign intelligence services in the country. According to Burgess, foreign intelligence services targeted various Austrlaians, including “high-ranking government officials, academics, members of think tanks, business executives, and members of a diaspora community.”

In another case, a wealthy individual with contacts with foreign government agencies was trying to set up a scheme to interfere with the politics in the country. He was trying to plot schemes to advance the prospects of the candidates.

The aim was not just to get their candidate to win the election but also to create a sense of indebtedness that could be exploited later on. The political candidates had no idea who was pulling the strings.

According to various media outlets like ABC, the wealthy individual has ties to Russia and was “linked to Russian spy agencies and President Putin’s regime.” While some report that the Chinese intelligence service was behind it.

Burgess said that people are not helpless against such interference and online radicalization. The most effective way to defend yourself against such tactics is awareness. Know what you are up against and understand the facts. He said, “our adversaries are sophisticated, but not unstoppable.