Open source research is fine. Just don’t do it for foreign spies

Clive Hamilton

The worlds of research and foreign intrigue collided recently in the case of Alexander Csergo, a business consultant arrested in April under Australia’s foreign interference laws. According to the police, Csergo was recruited by two Chinese intelligence agents to write reports about Australia’s defence, economic and national security arrangements.

Publicity around Csergo’s arrest prompted two law scholars to pen an article, published in The Conversation under the lurid headline ‘Could using open-source information online get you arrested for foreign interference?’, suggesting that academics minding their own business might become entangled in the foreign interference laws.

They noted that Csergo’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery, had contended at a hearing that the reports his client wrote had used information ‘largely from open-source documents.’ Setting aside the question raised by the word ‘largely’, the implication of this defence was that Csergo could not have done anything wrong if the information he used were already in the public domain.

The article and its headline reflect widespread misunderstanding about what ‘open source research’ means and how valuable it can be. To illustrate, I don’t have access to any classified information, nor can I tap phones, hack people’s email or peer into their bank accounts. Nevertheless, if I agreed to be recruited by China’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), to write reports for it based only on open sources I would be a valuable asset. Let me explain why.

In my recent memoir, Provocateur, I revealed that when in 2017 I finished a complete draft of my book Silent Invasion concerning Chinese Communist Party influence and interference in Australia, I decided to post a copy to ASIO. I didn’t know any spies, but I was hoping they would act like another referee, augmenting the three academics reviewing the manuscript. I hoped they might point to any mistakes or misinterpretations in the draft, based on their access to information inaccessible to me.

To my surprise, I was granted a meeting. They told me they were amazed at how much I knew given that I had access ‘only to open source information.’ In fact, they said, they learned a lot from the manuscript.

Open source + skills = new information

‘Open source research’ is something of a misnomer because it implies that anyone can find the information and know what they are looking at. Why would a foreign intelligence service pay for open source information if they can just google it themselves?

In fact, worthwhile investigative research using open sources requires a number of highly specialised skills. Unless a researcher has these skills, open source information has no value. Although the skills vary somewhat from topic to topic, they include an advanced knowledge of what to go looking for and how to find it in the more obscure nooks and crannies of the internet.

As important as knowing where to look, the information may be meaningless without a framework for understanding what the data mean and how they might augment the picture being formed. Building the framework may take years of study and require personal conversations with other people expert in the area.

Beyond the internet, open sources might include books found in libraries. For example, when for a more recent book, Hidden Hand, I was researching a London front group called the 48 Group Club, it was only by consulting obscure books in the National Library that I discovered the origins of the group in the early 1950s and the role played by covert members of the Communist Party of Great Britain who had been co-opted by Zhou Enlai, China’s premier and de facto intelligence chief.

Of course, valuable information may lie in foreign language sources, which is why I could not have written my books on China without expert Chinese-speaking collaborators with the specialised skills I have mentioned.

Open source research was taken to a sublime level by Alex Joske in his important 2022 book on the MSS, Spies and Lies. Joske worked out that a charity named the Shanghai New Century Social Development Foundation is in fact a front for Shanghai’s MSS office. Thinking the charity looked suspicious, he found its address in an unmarked and anonymous building. Searching the internet for information, he came across an online chat forum for among the city’s taxi-drivers, one of whom revealed that the building was ‘State Security.’

In short, information from open sources only has meaning and value when processed through a mind that can interpret it and build a coherent story. That’s what intelligence services pay for. Indeed, much of the work of intelligence officers in Australia is just like this.

Standard operating procedure

Academics doing their own research using open sources have nothing to worry about. Just don’t do it for dodgy characters who flatter you and offer money for a short paper something seemingly innocuous. MSS has a history of recruiting western academics (along with defence workers, business consultants and journalists) to write reports for them for cash, often quite small amounts, at least initially. Cash is not the only inducement. The MSS exploits human vulnerabilities referred to as the ‘four moral flaws’—lust, revenge, fame and greed.

Recruitment might be through social media, especially LinkedIn, but it can also be done by Chinese academics working on behalf of MSS. Various ‘think tanks’ in China serve this function as does the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, whose staff may work as ‘spotters and assessors.’ In fact, Shanghai is a hotbed of foreigner recruitment.

The target is usually asked to write a short report in their area of expertise using open source information. If an academic or technical expert, they may be asked to travel to China to give a presentation, all expenses paid. The requests and the payments are soon escalated until a line is crossed and the target is passing on high-level information gathered from contacts and even classified information.

All of this is standard operating procedure, and not only in China. Once in the net, it is very difficult to extricate oneself. You’ve already taken the money and spent it. The spies have information incriminating you.

This week a well-connected Australian entertainer and journalist, Harry Hartwell, a long-time China resident, described to the ABC how he had been approached by a person claiming to be from a Shanghai think tank who wanted to pay him to gather information about politicians  and other high-profile Australians and send them reports. He guessed they were MSS agents and declined. He was shocked at how much they knew about his personal life. Hartwell returned to Australia feeling he had dodged a bullet.

It’s a dark world out there and academics are a potential asset for foreign intelligence services. They need to exercise common sense, especially those who think they would never allow it to happen to them. Otherwise, they may indeed have the Australian Federal Police knocking on their door.

19 May 2023

Published under Creative Commons —may be republished online or in print for free, provided authorship is clearly acknowledged and it is not edited, except to reflect changes in time, location and editorial style.


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© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton