Australia’s approach to cyber security lacks citizen engagement

Australia’s cyber security strategies advocate for a ‘whole-of-society’ response to countering foreign interference threats, but policy experts say efforts to engage the public are largely tokenistic.

Researchers from Flinders University surveyed 1500 Australians and undertook in-depth focus groups across three states in late 2020 to assess public attitudes to institutional trust, digital literacy and perceptions of cyber threats.

The research findings, published in Defence Studies, highlight a gap between policy rhetoric and action. The authors characterise Australia’s response as “top-down”, “technocratic” and “elite-driven”.

According to the study, citizens’ attitudes and engagement are the key to resilience in the face of cyber threats, given foreign interference often seeks to undermine trust in democracy, manipulate public opinion, sow distrust and emphasise society’s underlying divides.

Cyber-enabled foreign interference can come in many forms including disinformation, hacking, doxing, ransomware attacks, trolling, and the use of bots.

Co-author Associate Professor Robert Manwaring says, “there’s generally little meaningful strategic effort to engage citizens in government-led responses, overlooking what’s often called the ‘social layer’ of cybersecurity.”

The research finds Australia’s policy approach largely regards the public as passive, rather than as engaged and empowered to combat cyber threats.

The paper highlights key areas where public attitudes about democracy, institutions and cyber threats are potential fodder for foreign actors.

Survey responses indicate Australians lack confidence in the integrity and honesty of public officials, influence over policy making, transparency and accountability.

For instance, around 80% of survey respondents consider public officials not using public office for private gain as a fundamental feature of democracy, yet only 39% see this practice upheld in Australia.

In addition, while the public service and security institutions of the police and armed forces enjoy high levels of trust, respondents overwhelmingly agree that Australia’s institutions are out of touch with regular people and run by “big interests.”

The paper says such disillusion is ripe for exploitation and can hamper state-led responses to cyber threats.

The survey results also show Australian citizens lack confidence in their ability to identify mis and dis information online, with only 20% “very confident” in their own media and digital literacy skills.

Read more: Research into digital media leads to grounds for concern

Australia’s cyber defences would be bolstered by a stronger focus on understanding citizens’ concerns and narratives, the researchers conclude.

Manwaring says, “we need to encourage a genuinely whole-of-society approach – something which, like Sweden and Finland, are making considerable inroads.”

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