Cyber Counterintelligence: Assets, Audiences, and the Rise of Disinformation




O'Connor, CJ

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In April 2021, Facebook suffered yet another data breach that affected hundreds of millions of accounts. The private information of over 500 million people had been stolen by hackers - names, phone numbers, email addresses, locations and more. The cache is potentially valuable to a host of malicious actors, from criminals motivated by financial gain to hostile foreign actors microtargeting voters through information operations. It follows an evolution of threats in cyberspace targeting government agencies, utilities, businesses, and electoral systems. With a focus on state-based actors, this thesis considers how state threat perception of cyberspace has developed, and if that perception is influencing the evolution of cyber counterintelligence (CCI) as a response to cyber-enabled threats such as disinformation. Specifically, this thesis traces the threat elevation of cyberspace through the evolution of the published national security documentation of the United Kingdom, asking how threat elevation corresponds to the development of CCI, if at all, and what sort of responses these processes generate to combat the rising threat of disinformation campaigns conducted against liberal democracies. Democratic audiences are a target of influence and information operations, and, as such, are an intelligence and security vulnerability for the state. More so than in previous decades, to increase national resilience and security in cyberspace, the individual, as part of the democratic audience, is required to contribute to personal counterintelligence and security practices. This research shows that while assets and infrastructure have undergone successful threat elevation processes, democratic audiences have been insufficiently recognised as security vulnerabilities and are susceptible to cyber-enabled disinformation.






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