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Australia’s spy chief warns AI set to inflame radicalisation

Australia’s spy chief warns AI set to inflame radicalisation
Australian spy chief Mike Burgess. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Australia’s domestic intelligence chief warned that artificial intelligence is likely to dramatically improve the capabilities of the nation’s enemies — resulting in increased espionage, disinformation and radicalisation.

The internet is already “the world’s most potent incubator of extremism,” Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said in excerpts of a speech to be delivered on Wednesday. “AI is likely to make radicalisation easier and faster.”

ASIO reckons artificial intelligence “will allow a step change” in the capabilities of Australia’s enemies, Burgess added.

His comments echo sentiments from the heads of the US’s FBI and Britain’s MI5 about terrorists exploiting the enormous potential of the technology, saying last October that it brings a level of threat never previously encountered. But Burgess also highlighted the conundrum as it also opens huge opportunities.

“The way I see it, AI is HOT: equal parts Hype, Opportunity and Threat,” he said, according to the excerpts of his speech to the National Press Club.

The Australian government is moving toward imposing mandatory restrictions on the development and use of AI, creating a panel of legal and scientific experts in February to inform future policy.

Burgess also called on technology companies to work with agencies to establish lawful access for end-to-end encryption. While privacy is important, he said, it can’t be absolute and technology shouldn’t be above the law.

“Unaccountable encryption is like building a safe room for terrorists and spies, a secure place where they can plot and plan.”

Australia is still reeling from two knife attacks in the past two weeks. Just over a week ago, the bishop of an ultra-conservative Assyrian Orthodox church in Sydney was stabbed during a service, in what police say was a religiously-motivated “terrorist incident”.

Burgess said ASIO is investigating a number of Australians who belong to a nationalist and racist extremist network who use an encrypted chat platform to communicate with offshore extremists, sharing propaganda and discussing how to provoke a race war.

“The chatroom is encrypted, so ASIO’s ability to investigate is seriously compromised,” he said. 

As a result, “having lawful and targeted access to extremist communications would be much more effective and efficient. It would give us real time visibility of their activities,” he said.

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