These are the most dangerous global threats for 2018, US intelligence chiefs have warned in an annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats”.
“The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats said in this opening statement to US Congress.
The hearing followed the release of the 2018 US National Defence Strategy last month, which contained worrying findings about the state of global security.
“We are facing increased global disorder, characterised by decline in the longstanding rules-based international order — creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory,” the report said.
So what exactly do we need to prepare for?
CRIMES IN CYBERSPACE
Cybercrime remains the most pressing concern for Western liberal democracies, according to intelligence officials.
They cited Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — as well as militant groups in the Middle East — as threats to global security.
In his opening statement, Mr Coats warned the US is “under attack” by “entities using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the US”.
Donald Trump issued a national security strategy document in December deeming cybersecurity a top priority.
Tom Uren, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there are two main kinds of cyberattack currently present in Australia — those targeting individuals, and those targeting the state.
“There are criminals, usually in places like Eastern Europe or Indonesia, or countries where law enforcement isn’t as effective … they’ll employ all sorts of ransomware, straight-up fraud, blackmail and sometimes credential threats to steal your money,” he told news.com.au.
He said Australian banks and other corporations would also come under victims of this category.
But it’s the second kind that’s posing a specific threat to global security.
“There’s a whole heap of states involved in cyber-espionage — the big ones being China, Russia and Iran. This is a different class of threat. They’re more concerned with getting information on advancing the national interest, and it tends not to affect the individual.”
He also warned that any person or company in possession of a large amount of data could be a target of either form.
A report released by the Australian Cyber Security Centre last year said operations targeting the government are rapidly getting more skilled.
“Advanced malicious cyber activity against Australia’s national and economic interests is increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity,” it said. “The reach and diversity of cyber adversaries are expanding, and their operations against both government and private networks are constantly evolving.”
Likewise, ransomware and credential-harvesting malware posed increasing threats to Australians, with the ability to steal sensitive information.
A survey by Accenture and the Ponemon Institute found that cybercrime in Australia grew by more than a quarter last year — the second-highest growth rate among seven countries surveyed.
Cyber-based influence campaigns have been a hot topic since the US election, with experts warning such activity poses a major threat to global democracies.
Mr Coats said Russian interference has and will continue to threaten security in the Western world.
He warned it would continue harnessing fake personalities on social media and throwing propaganda at Americans ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” he said.
“Throughout the entire community, we have not seen any evidence of any significant change from last year.”
American intelligence agencies share his view, suggesting Russian bot armies are promoting partisan causes on social media.
“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” said Mr Coats.
While criminal cyberactivity remains a problem in Australia, the good news is that influence operations present less of a threat here.
“Russian influence in the US has been very aggressive and invasive. They’re seeking to influence operations, and change the way the American political process works. It’s hard to see that coercive influence being exerted here,” said Mr Uren. “But of course geopolitics is very fluid, so it’s one of those things we have to be aware of.
“It’s still unknown whether they’ll actually take place here. It would be a game of cat-and-mouse, where attackers use one particular technique and we’d probably come up with some sort of countermeasure. That’s just the way social media is — there’s so many ways it can be abused.”
Mr Coats warned time is running out for the United States to act on North Korea’s nuclear threats.
He said North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction present “a potentially existential” threat to the US and its allies — of which Australia is one — and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year.
“North Korea continues to pose an ever more increasing threat to the United States and its interests,” Mr Coats said.
“We expect to see North Korea press ahead with additional missile tests this year and its foreign minister has threatened an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific.
“Pyongyang is committed to fielding a long-range nuclear armed missile capable of posing a direct threat to the United States and modest improvements in North Korea’s conventional capabilities will continue to pose an ever-greater threat to South Korea, Japan as well as US targets in those countries.”
Despite easing tensions on the Korean peninsular during the Winter Olympics, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said there was “no indication there’s any strategic change” in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s desire to remain a nuclear threat.
In Mr Uren’s opinion, the threat of nuclear weapons is the most concerning of the issues raised in the hearing. While the probability of a nuclear strike isn’t likely at this stage, he said the impact on the world economy — including Australia’s — would be devastating.
Experts have also warned that, if the situation escalates, Australia could be dragged onto the Korean peninsular as an ally of the US.
MILITANT TERROR GROUPS
Mr Coats said terrorism continues to be a major global threat, including homegrown terrorism.
“US-based homegrown violent extremist terrorism, including inspired and self-radical individuals, represent the primary and most difficult to detect Sunni terrorism threat in the United States,” he said.
Islamic State militants have lost significant ground in Iraq and Syria, but Mr Coats said they “remain a threat” and will most likely attempt to regroup.
A US Homeland Security report released last year revealed that Australia ranked equal third among Western nations as a target for Islamic State-inspired terror attacks.
The likelihood of Australia suffering another terror attack is “probable”, as ranked on the National Terrorism Threat Level.
“Credible intelligence, assessed by our security agencies, indicates that individuals or groups have developed both the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia,” stated Australian National Security.
However last month, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said Beijing and Moscow pose a greater threat to Australia than terrorists in the Middle East.
“(Islamic State) don’t have the capacity to take out a nation, or completely wipe out our defence sources,” he told Nine News.
Similarly, Mr Uren described IS as a “non-existential” threat, noting the terror group isn’t capable of destroying the world economy.
— With Reuters