Xi Jinping and Scott Morrison (Images: AAP)

Hearty congratulations to journalists of The Australian Financial Review and The Australian for discovering the world of open-source intelligence.

The Oz got one story out of a database of western business and political figures leaked from Chinese defence contractor Shenzhen Zhenhua Data. The Fin got not one, not two, but three pieces, including an editorial that the information “may be being weaponised to engage in unacceptable political interference in the democratic process in countries such as Australia”. The targets mentioned included the likes of Scott Morrison, Andrew Hastie, Joe Hockey and Jennifer Westacott and Mike Canon-Brookes.

That’s rich just weeks after the AFR lectured national security officials that they were engaged in a “culture war against the market” for warning China was a national security threat. Maybe one of his own journalists being on the receiving end of a midnight raid alerted editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury to the fact that no amount of China lobby op-eds will protect you from Xi Jinping’s tyranny.

One cyber security consultant breathlessly advised The Australian: “Every person who has a profile in this database has probably been the victim of a pretty extensive breach of their privacy, not just in terms of the level of scraping that has occurred from the open source, collating that into a profile rendered in another country, taken from platforms where they didn’t really consent to this information being shared in that way.”

Except, erm, that’s the entire business model of surveillance capitalism. That’s why profiles of all of us are created and sold by social media platforms, marketing firms, data miners and ad agencies without most of us having a clue who is handling our information. Not even the 100,000-word terms and conditions we don’t read before agreeing to use a social media platform list who eventually gets our data.

It’s also no worse than what Australia’s major political parties do to each of us. They put together profiles of every single voter, based not just on banal details from the electoral roll but on every piece of public data they can find online. They also target social media advertising using exactly the kind of information scraped together by Shenzhen Zhenhua Data.

But Australian politicians have given themselves an exemption from privacy laws so there’s no control or transparency about what they do.

“Oh but this is much worse,” people might object. This isn’t for anything as boring as advertising. This is for manipulation and interference.

Well members of the western cyber-industrial complex routinely put together such lists. Hell, even a z-list hack like your correspondent has ended up on a list compiled for national security purposes by a US firm. The list was bullshit, intended to convince gullible people that the people who compiled it had some special skills, when all they did was a bit of googling.

Each of us produces a constant stream of digital smog — tiny pieces of data that individually mean nothing but together form a rich portrait of our lives. Even if you have no social media presence it’s hard to avoid creating a digital image. Facebook even has profiles of people who aren’t on Facebook, because their friends are on there.

Of course, if the AFR thinks it’s bad that a Chinese company builds profiles of people to “interfere”, wait until they hear that Australian security agencies use such companies to spy on environmental groups, or that the United States — as exposed by occasional Crikey writer Barrett Brown — has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a decade creating fake accounts to influence social media. And you thought the Russians invented that in 2016 …

And let’s hope they never find out that Australian journalists routinely trawl the internet to compile information about politicians, business people and public figures. That’s the fun thing about open-source intelligence — it’s a game everyone can play.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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