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Mobilising the citizenry for modern security

Military self reliance and a stronger defence force with increased capability and more funding has been the topic of intense debate in Australia. But there is another area that remains ill explored: the role of the modern citizen in national security.

The internet has become the prominent platform for exchanges between individuals, businesses and states, but it is not a simple medium. Disintegration of national autonomy has rapidly increased as governments lose control over the dissemination of information. Foreign governments are now able to execute statecraft by gaining direct access, not only to sensitive information that passes through “secret” backdoor channels, but also direct access to a wider public.

Through clever utilisation of cyberspace, the execution of social manoeuvring as an instrument of contemporary statecraft has uncovered a paradox in the system of liberal democratic governance: in order to combat such operations, governments must further engineer their own public and the information available to them. 

The state in the digital age

Authoritarian states, like China, have come to benefit from cyberspace. As the digital landscape is malleable, it can be shaped to control a population through the manipulation of the information it is exposed to or shielded from. As the scope of “freedom of speech” and civil liberties continues to erode in democracies, citizens are increasingly attributing resilient policies to authoritarian nanny-states like China. 

In an ideal democratic state, the distribution of power between the authority and the citizen is equal. While the state can monitor society, that society gives legitimacy and power to the governing authority. Such a society is characterised by its norms, values, and interests, which are determined by the individuals which comprise it. In return, the government in power, whether through legislation or policy, deems these characteristics as legitimate. Such a social profile is fluid however; it can adapt and morph throughout time. This social flexibility can be influenced or manipulated by inside (government) or outside (foreign adversary) forces. 

By targeting – narrow or broad – audiences, a hostile agent can effectively steer a society towards a perspective that is beneficial to its interests. Thus, national security must reflect the values and interests of citizens; not to be purely objective in defending borders, but also to cater to the protection of the identity of the state. One free from interference and in which citizens can contribute to and perceive to be of value. 

The responsibility to defend

Australian citizenship, according to the Department of Home Affairs, is a privilege, an assessment that makes sense to many Australians. Responsibility within the state is seemingly second nature: behave in accordance with democracy, rights, liberties and the law; vote, and serve on a jury. The final responsibility, however, is rarely recognised: the responsibility to “defend the country should the need arise”.

Traditionally this responsibility has been met with military enlistment or conscription. The future of warfare, it seems will be more one of bots on the web than boots on the ground. So where does this responsibility as a citizen to defend fit within the realm of security? This is a question open to broad discussion not purely within the realm of cyberspace. But as cyberspace is Australia's most utilised platform for engagement - and exposure - it is perhaps a fitting area to trial such participation and responsibility.

The National Security Hotline’s prompt “If you see something say something” has played an active and beneficial role in investigations, so why not expand civil participation when it comes to other suspicious activity? A platform for monitoring or reporting suspicious websites or profiles could very well assist in the control and mitigation of social manoeuvring. Some threats, such as biological or climate related threats are inevitable, but information campaigns and social manoeuvring can be mitigated.

Civil society must become an informed, participating and understanding stakeholder in national security processes if Australia is to defend against acts of social manoeuvring in the digital era. Cyberspace presents a promising platform to trial policies that communicate, educate and encourage civilian participation in national security. Whether this is through “defending the country” in respecting processes implemented by the legitimate government apparatus – to contain and mitigate threats of interference – or building social resilience to identify and report foreign manipulation. 

It is the well-functioning of the collective group of individuals that determines the state’s legitimacy through recognition of national identity and values; one free from foreign interference. Defending the country as an active participant in cyberspace and cyber security is a favourable test-ground for promoting active engagement in national security to uphold state legitimacy.

Madeleine Nugent is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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