This article was originally published in The Australian
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fears over China’s posturing around Taiwan and perhaps unprecedented internal turmoil in some liberal democracies around the world, there has arguably not been a time in recent memory when the world was so finely poised in terms of the potential for conflict.
And in that scenario, high-quality information becomes a potent tool in predicting and heading off threats, identifying bad actors, and protecting both sovereign states and corporations from malicious intent.
Adelaide-based open-source intelligence solutions provider Fivecast is riding that wave, growing quickly in recent years based on its ability to turn the flood of digital data online into credible threat assessments for its customers in government and business.
The company was spun out of a Cooperative Research Centre “Data to Decisions” program back in 2017, attracting venture capital funding in its early days from CSIRO’s Main Sequence Ventures investment arm and the South Australian Venture Capital Fund.
Chief executive Dr Brenton Cooper said the company now has a headcount of about 120 spread across four offices in Adelaide, Canberra, London and Arlington, Virginia – home to the US Department of Defence headquarters, the Pentagon.
The need for its artificial intelligence-driven tools, Dr Cooper says, stems in part from the competition between the world’s great powers, Russia, China and the US, where tensions have been rising in recent times.
The US Government’s most recent annual threat assessment, released by its intelligence agencies last year, spells it out plainly: “The United States and its allies will face an increasingly complex and interconnected global security environment marked by the growing spectre of great power competition and conflict, while collective, transnational threats to all nations and actors compete for our attention and finite resources. Emerging and disruptive technologies, as well as the proliferation and permeation of technology into all aspects of our lives, pose unique challenges.’’
The assessment singles out cyber issues such as China’s suppression of US web content at home, “and the expansion of technology-driven authoritarianism globally’’.
Dr Cooper said one of Fivecast’s abilities was being equipped to analyse how neighbouring countries are being influenced.
“We did a case study recently looking at Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea,’’ he said.
“That really came down to pretty blatant engagement online from the Chinese government officials trying to push an agenda around ‘the West is all about conflict and coming in and asserting their influence, financially and militarily, whereas the Chinese government’s trying to build stadiums and support the community.’’
Fivecast analysed social media traffic in that case, in order to be able to paint a picture of the sorts of activities which were taking place online.
On the defence front, it recently did some work looking at Russian paramilitaries which were getting involved in the conflict in Ukraine.
“They’re posting images on social media platforms like VK, posing in front of buildings, with addresses on those buildings – that’s a great source of intel for our customers where they pinpoint that’s where the Russian paramilitary group is right now.’’
This sort of analysis can also be used for battle damage assessment.
“These days everyone has a mobile phone and everyone’s a mobile reporter as you’d appreciate,’’ Dr Cooper said.
“People are posting photos of a tank that’s just being destroyed. It’s not just the number and location of these sorts of military skirmishes but ‘how was this tank destroyed, what type of tank was it?’”
Closer to home, the rise of right-wing extremism in the US and Australia is something agencies are keen to keep a close eye on. With these groups largely organising online, Fivecast is able to uncover individuals and emerging themes that could pose a threat.
And for top corporates such as ASX100 companies, Fivecast offers what’s called “protective security’’ Dr Cooper said.
“So you think about the big mining companies in Australia and around the world.
“Obviously, they’ve got resources dotted around the world in remote places, possibly amongst populations that aren’t that happy for them to be there extracting resources from them. So it’s something that they’re very concerned about.
“We do see that those sorts of companies recruit intelligence and security professionals from the defence and law enforcement segments market.
“We’ve just worked with one of our partners in the US which was contracted to provide protective security to the soccer World Cup, and so they were looking at potential threats to the players, the teams and the games and monitoring the digital world to try and find those threats wherever they might be.’’
To give some idea of the complexity involved, Dr. Cooper said Fivecast recently presented a retrospective analysis on the January 6 riots in the US.
“We started off with just 21 accounts, and then you quickly find out there’s 500,000 people connected to those 21 accounts.
“Most of those are completely innocuous and completely safe, but you have to look at and find the ones that might be of concern.
“That’s where we use machine learning and artificial intelligence to really try and sift through that data to get to the things that might be of relevance for the human to review.
“We’re trying to put tools in the hands of the security staff and the intelligence analysts so they can do their job better.’’
Dr Cooper said the company was profitable last year after landing a significant US defence research project, but would probably look at raising new growth capital in the future.
Dr Cooper says Fivecast is targeting 140 staff by mid-year.