Intelligence work is fast changing. This has implications not just for those working in national security but for regular citizens. Digital transformation and emerging technologies are shifting the balance between secrecy and transparency in intelligence work.
Secrecy is a defining characteristic of intelligence. However, this is being challenged by a digital landscape that renders very little secret. For too long, the trend has been to become less transparent. This comes at the cost of trust in our national security institutions, our democracy and government.
New research by the emerging technology program at the United States Studies Centre highlights the need to rebalance the equilibrium of secrecy and transparency in national security to increase trust in democracy and government. Data abundance, digital connectivity and ubiquitous technology are challenging some of the principles and practices that have traditionally been central to the work of intelligence agencies.
All secrecy is not equal, and there is a need to maintain some of our most important national security secrets in a world of abundant information and increased intelligence declassification. Greater consideration is required now to ensure the protection of necessary intelligence capabilities (including collection methods, sources of intelligence, data, and intelligence assessments), as well as balance transparency for accountability and communication to key stakeholders and declassification for non-government stakeholders.
Intelligence is contextual; the requirements for secrecy in intelligence activities and within the agencies that perform them are different. The type and temporality of secrecy depends on the situation as well as different objectives, legislative frameworks and agency cultures. Examples include defence capabilities that have an enduring and critical secrecy requirement, or investigations into suspected terrorist activity that may have secrecy requirements bounded by the time of the investigation until action is taken. Some agency cultures are inimical to open communication.
The system isn’t entirely broken. In fact, on many fronts it is working well to keep Australians safe and to provide significant forewarning about threats and events. However, it is necessary to continue to rebalance the tensions between secrecy and transparency.
Governments need to preserve aspects of secrecy for national security, while also protecting democratic principles through accountability and transparency. In contrast, authoritarian governments are using the tools of intelligence for surveillance and oppression. The big data landscape has democratised intelligence capabilities that were once available only to nation states and are now available to companies, data collectors and in technologies for sale. Increased politicisation of intelligence is visible in other democracies as well as instances where legal intelligence activity is seen as outside the norm of reasonable expectation.
The digital landscape that forms the backbone of our society, combined with an increased regional threat picture, is changing the traditional stakeholders for intelligence agencies. The big data landscape creates diffuse vulnerabilities in sectors not previously associated with the intelligence community, like industry, academia, media, and not-for profits. There is a need for intelligence agencies to boost engagement with non-traditional stakeholders on specific threats such as cyber-attacks and espionage, as well as seeking information from industry to help understand the threat landscape and identify offenders.
This increased engagement, and need for external assistance, shifts the equilibrium on secrecy and transparency. Preserving secrecy is also challenged by increased declassification of intelligence to share with a broader range of non-traditional stakeholders. Examples of this can be seen by the rapid declassification of US intelligence in the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the declassification of an intelligence community assessment of Russia’s activities in the 2016 US presidential election.
The challenge of the engagement of policymakers with the inherent tensions between secrecy and transparency in intelligence has long existed. The inevitable advance of digital, data-driven technologies means tensions are becoming more public, making a realignment of secret intelligence capabilities with changing community expectations critical. The government has the opportunity, as part of its recent push for democratic resilience, to improve this system and increase trust in the intelligence apparatus and other institutions of government.
We need to ensure the balance of secrecy and transparency is bipartisan and non-politicised as a lack of transparency tends to fuel authoritarianism. National Security 23 – the parliamentarian training program recently announced by Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong – is a step in the right direction. It should be expanded to include a module on the tensions between secrecy and transparency in national security, and similar training should be included in state and territory legislative inductions programs.
The government should continue to seek out community expectations about the role of intelligence in democracies and broaden its aperture. It should fund and commission research to understand contemporary and diverse Australian perspectives on intelligence activities and national security.
The intelligence community should continue to increase engagement and expand to two-way communication. This would enable the community to understand contemporary threats as well as communicate societal expectations – and for the National Intelligence Community to get a better sense of when these expectations are changing and why.
Agencies should ensure diverse perspectives and experiences are reflected at all levels within the intelligence enterprise.