“Insidious” cyber chaos too fast for ASIO

Chief faces uphill battle with technology, pines for simple, efficient past

Despite massive funding increases and greater cooperation from federal and state law enforcement agencies, Australia's security chief predicts the intelligence community will continue to struggle with new technology.

“Technological change is occurring so fast and chaotically that intelligence communities do indeed have trouble keeping up,” David Irvine, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) told the Safeguarding Australia conference in Canberra last night, an event that includes the 2nd National Cyber Warfare Conference.

ASIO's battle with how people used and acquired technology was compounded by these new technologies having supposedly undermined the legal framework that once supported traditional methods of gathering intelligence.

“In other words, the laws under which we operate have to be constantly be modernised to ensure that they enable us to do with new technology what we were able to do with the old,” he said, justifying recent enhancements of its powers.  

Two key pieces of legislation address the technological challenges faced by ASIO and the other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The controversial Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, intended to allow Australia to accede to the  Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, was found to be seriously flawed by the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety. Yet this week the House of Representatives ignored all of those recommendations. Instead, MPs rushed to correct a fatal flaw that would have seen the new law fail to achieve its stated purpose of acceding to the treaty.

Meanwhile the Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011 has already been passed into law after little parliamentary debate or public comment. It significantly increases ASIO's powers to collect intelligence overseas by expanding the definition of "foreign power" — which led to it being dubbed the WikiLeaks law.

ASIO, Irvine reflected, had enjoyed an increase in funding since the 9/11 bombings in New York. The event jolted governments into investing in the spy service after scaling it back during the 1990s Cold War dividend process. But he urged people to remember that it was starting from a "small base", with an annual budget of $64 million and a head count of 600 prior to the bombings. Today it enjoyed a 1,800 strong headcount and an annual budget of over $717 million -- up almost $300 million from 2009-10. 

Irvine said the legislative enhancements were “necessary” to improve interagency information-sharing and to “use technology ... in a more efficient and targeted way”.

Although “cyber” was “simply another vector” in the broader spectrum of espionage and sabotage activities ASIO sought to combat, he expected cyber alone to cause the greatest difficulties for the agency in the coming decade.

“I do find that the cyber threat we see today is particularly insidious and particularly worrying,” he said.

“The explosion of the cyber world has expanded infinitely the opportunities for the covert acquisition of information by both state-sponsored and non-state actors.

“And today we see constant attempts by cyber means to steal the nation’s secrets, as well  as other information that is vital the operation of critical national infrastructure, critical national industries, not to mention straight commercial intelligence and straight criminal fraud.”

The rise of that “new frontier” in the intelligence community had caused it to broaden its view of threats beyond state-actors. Today, “ordinary street hackers” could be seen in the same “non-state actor” class as terrorists, along with non-individual threats such as climate change or mass movements of people.

“The cyber espionage threat that emerged in the past decade can only intensify,” he predicted.

“The old threats will continue but will be increasingly shaped by the ubiquity of cyber technology, including the notion of cyber — as the Americans have now determined — to be a domain of warfare.”

Stilgherrian contributed to this story.

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