Australia's war on terror hampered by incompatible IT systems

Problems still plague exchanging information amongst Australia's counter-terrorism authorities, the government's review of counter-terrorism arrangements has said.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

As the Australian government claims it needs to introduce such measures as mandatory data retention to step up the fight against an increasingly technically capable terrorist enemy, the government's own IT systems remain incompatible, and services such as email are not always available, the Review of Australia's Counter-Terrorism Machinery (PDF) has said.

The review said that despite a number of successive reports highlighting the issues and information sharing improving, problems remain.

"There are various technical and policy issues that make it hard to share information between relevant agencies," the review said. "Some information technology systems are not compatible, and agencies working to differing legislative mandates and requirements may be subject to restrictions that prevent them sharing information easily -- particularly information related to Australian nationals.

"The internet-facing systems of agencies are accredited to different levels, which means email connectivity is not universal. This slows down information sharing, which is a particular problem in times of crisis.

"Sharing information with states and territories, as well as with our international partners, can also be complicated when Commonwealth systems are not compatible with the standards and security measures of other jurisdictions' systems."

The review also bemoaned the uptake of encryption beyond nation states and major enterprises, and said it is a pressing challenge to maintain access to terrorists' communications. It said relationships between public and private sectors had become strained once knowledge of widespread government surveillance came to light, forcing agencies to use legal pressure and more "intrusive and sophisticated monitoring measures" to gain access to the information it wants.

"It is worth noting that post-Snowden, relationships between intelligence and business have been strained, making it harder to access key data without legal compulsion," the review said. "Terrorist groups also have a greater knowledge of the technological capabilities of national security agencies, making it easier to evade surveillance and monitoring efforts," the review said.

"The speed of technical innovation and the ongoing consequences of Edward Snowden's revelations are making the task of maintaining a technological 'edge' over terrorists more difficult.

"For example, the proliferation of communication platforms and encryption technology makes it difficult to maintain the expertise and access needed to detect and monitor terrorists' communications. While much valuable intelligence is hidden by encryption, agencies also need to manage the volume of unencrypted metadata being created. More generally, the challenges of managing and exploiting this data requires investment in new and unique tools, skills, and innovation."

Australia's self-identified social media problem
(Screenshot: Chris Duckett/ZDNet)

Social media came in for special attention, with the review pointing out that terrorist organisations are able to reach a large audience on Facebook and Twitter.

"Essentially, the conflict in [the Levant] has seen the creation of a new generation of increasingly capable, mobile, and digitally connected terrorists with the ability to disseminate their extreme ideology around the world," it said.

"Their material is broadly disseminated through social media ... and is no longer confined to password-protected dark corners of the online world."

On Friday, the government announced AU$18 million in funding to fight terrorist propaganda on social media sites.

"The fight against terrorist groups like ISIL is taking place online as they continue to weaponise information and spread their messages of hate and violence through social media," Australian Attorney-General George Brandis said on Friday.

Under the review's recommendations, Brandis would be responsible for leading the development of a proposal to "counter the reach of extremist narratives in Australia". As part of the proposal, the attorney-general, who famously said that "people do have a right to be bigots", will put forward a plan to establish community and public-private partnerships to tackle radicalisation.

"Opportunities to partner with community and private sector organisations on CVE [countering violent extremism] are diverse, and could include: Media training and capacity building by social media providers like Facebook and Twitter to hep (sic) community organisation to improve their digital literacy and reach to at-risk individuals," the review said.

In a national security statement delivered today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government would be taking action against hate preachers.

"It includes new programs to challenge terrorist propaganda and to provide alternative online material based on Australian values," he said. "And it will include stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating, or inciting hatred. These changes should empower community members to directly challenge terrorist propaganda."

Abbott has been criticised for politicising the debate surrounding the introduction of mandatory metadata legislation.

"Access to metadata is the common element to most successful counter-terrorism investigations," Abbott said today. "It's essential in fighting most major crimes, including the most abhorrent of all -- crimes against children.

"Again, I call on parliament to support this important legislation."

Editorial standards