Australian foreign intelligence chief acknowledges cyber security threat

ASIS director general says advances in information technology and other technological innovations will be among the greatest risks to Australia's security in the next 10-15 years.

The head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Nick Warner, has flagged cyber security and evolving information technology as a major area of national insecurity in the coming decade.

In a speech marking the 60th anniversary of the foreign intelligence service, the director general said the field of cyber operations was one of the most rapidly evolving and potentially serious threats to Australia during the next ten years.

“Government departments and agencies, together with corporate Australia, have been subject to concerted efforts by external actors seeking to infiltrate sensitive computer networks,” he said.

“DSD [Defence Signals Directorate], ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] and the Attorney-General's Department have a lead role in helping protect the government and business from such threats — as does ASIS.”

Warner said considerable resources were now being invested by the government to counter threats posed by cyber attacks and to make departments and agencies more resilient.

In light of the threat posed by cyber security attacks, ASIS was placing greater emphasis on intelligence gathered from people, or in its terms, “Humint”, Warner said.

“So far as ASIS is concerned, "HUMINT" has a role in identifying the source of these threats and revealing the underlying intentions of those probing our cyber realm,” he said. “This will become an increasingly important part of ASIS's work in the years ahead.”

Advances in information technology and other technological innovations, along with geopolitical issues such as terrorism and greater competition for resources, would pose threats to Australia, and challenges to ASIS, for the next 10 to 15 years, Warner said.

“The separate yet inter-related revolutions underway in information technology, nanotechnology, biometrics and materials technology will also fundamentally alter the environment in which our officers operate,” he said.

“Developments in cyber are a two-edged sword for an agency like ASIS. They offer new ways of collecting information, but the digital fingerprints and footprints which we all now leave behind complicate the task of operating covertly.”

The comments mark an increasing public acknowledgement from both the government and the country’s intelligence services that the world’s increased reliance on information technology is creating risks as well as benefits.

For example, in late 2010, ASIO director general, David Irvine said the said technology, and the forces of globalisation, were the two principal drivers of its business modernisation to better deal with cyber security, cyber espionage and cyber terrorism.

“Countering terrorism is not ASIO's only continuing focus,” Irvine said in the agency’s 2009-10 annual report. “ASIO must also be highly capable within the cyber domain, working in close cooperation with the Defence Signals Directorate and the Attorney-General’s Department.

“Cyber espionage is an emerging issue, requiring considerable attention across Government to address both the criminal and public protection aspects, as well as counter-espionage and other defence elements.” In September last year the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) also said it would spend up to $2.2 million on prototyping new cyber security technologies to help ‘future proof’ Australia’s defence capabilities.

In June 2011, then attorney-general, Robert McClelland, said the Australia would begin developing its first Cyber White Paper in recognition of the threat which cyber attacks posed to national security.

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