VIDEO: This is how the first Thorbecke Conference went

Thorbecke Conference 2023, John A. Gentry

Ransomware, phishing, disinformation and new technology such as artificial intelligence have a huge impact globally on our safety, making cybersafety and cybersecurity increasingly pressing issues today. In response, the Thorbecke Academy organised the very first international Thorbecke Conference on Tuesday and Wednesday in Assen with the theme ‘Intelligence and counterintelligence’.

Guests from government organisations, businesses, knowledge institutes and social organisations from across the globe came together to, along with students and staff from the Thorbecke Academy, exchange knowledge, skills and experience on threats in a digitized world.

The conference was special host to significant international guest speakers including John A. Gentry (former CIA analyst and assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC), Michael Kowalski (from the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV)), and Richard J. Aldrich (professor of international security at the University of Warwick). In their keynotes, they presented their findings on subjects such as online geopolitical influence operations, fake news and ethics in counterterrorism.

Other international researchers also presented their findings including on cyber interference in the maritime industry, legislative measures for online surveillance of public order, and how to combat false information in Dutch elections. Learnings from other times and places were also discussed such as the Iranian intervention in Iraq and the situation of German opposition in the British World War 2 strategy. In workshops, attendees worked together on topics such as artificial intelligence, EU measures against foreign interference and the counteraction of disinformation about the war in the Ukraine.

The Thorbecke Academy is working on an incredibly important topic, not just internationally but also locally. It's about protecting our democracy.

François Kloosterhuis – Strategic Advisor for the Municipality of Assen

Geopolitic influence operations

Gentry discussed the vulnerabilities in the United States that are being exploited by Russia and China in influence operations. He suggested measures for managing and preventing vulnerabilities The US, as a large world power, an open democracy and a country of immigrants, is an attractive and relatively easy target. American universities have become, like so many in Europe, vulnerable for Chinese influence operations.

Operations targeting scientists are probably more intensive and effective than for any other group. Such activities should, according to Gentry, be countered in two ways: “The government needs to change laws and regulations so as to make influence operations by adversaries impossible. And, it is essential to manage the vulnerabilities that could be exploited by other countries.”

Digital networks and disinformation

Kowalski stressed in his keynote on ethics in counterterrorism and governance of intelligence services the need to strengthen armed forces and the urgency to form international partnerships. “Digital networks do not stop at national borders. Which means digital incidents and threats can also affect other countries. A transdisciplinary approach is therefore essential.”

Lastly, Aldrich addressed disinformation, whistleblowers and fake news. Conflicting stories and an approach which blurs the distinction between legal and illegal activities mean that by the time a target is in a position to be able to take measures or investigate the situation, the damage has already been done. Whistleblowers have also had a major effect on the privacy of citizens. The government now has far fewer secrets, particularly in terms of national security and, according to Aldrich, this is due to technology such as big data. The internet offers a perfect way of revealing secrets anonymously. This trend is expected to accelerate and is a challenge for national security officials.

The Thorbecke Academy organises the Thorbecke Conference each year on a relevant issue covering law, governance and security. The aftermovie will be posted online as soon as possible. The next Thorbecke Conference will be in 2024.

Photo credits: Rianne Hessels Photography

Onderwijsatelier Thorbecke Academie in Assen

Thorbecke Academie

The Thorbecke Academy, part of NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, is the institute for programmes in the fields of law, governance and security. The Thorbecke Academy is based in Leeuwarden and Assen. Assen is centrally located and home to various government agencies such as the police, defence services and the Court of Northern Netherlands.

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