​ASIO shifting strategy and resources in the face of cyber threat

The country's intelligence agency has aligned its resources to focus on the growing threat of cyber espionage targeting 'a range' of Australian interests.

In the wake of accusations from United States intelligence agencies that Russia hacked into Democratic Party emails, thus helping Donald Trump to election victory last year, a report from Australia's intelligence agency said the country's national security resources are focused on preventing foreign threat actors from "targeting a range of Australian interests".

In its 2016-17 Annual Report [PDF], the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) explained that Australia continued to be a target of espionage and foreign interference, noting in particular that foreign intelligence services sought access to privileged and/or classified information on Australia's alliances and partnerships; the country's position on international diplomatic, economic, and military issues; as well as energy and mineral resources, and innovations in science and technology-related fields.

ASIO called the threat from espionage and foreign interference to Australian interests "extensive, unrelenting, and increasingly sophisticated".

"Foreign intelligence services are targeting a range of Australian interests, including clandestine acquisition of intellectual property, science and technology, and commercially sensitive information," the report explains.

"Foreign intelligence services are also using a wider range of techniques to obtain intelligence and clandestinely interfere in Australia's affairs, notably including covert influence operations in addition to the tried and tested human-enabled collection, technical collection, and exploitation of the internet and information technology."

During the reported period, ASIO said it identified foreign powers clandestinely seeking to shape the opinions of members of the Australian public, media organisations, and government officials, motivated by the appeal of "advancing their country's own political objectives".

As highlighted by ASIO, rapid technological change continued to provide people who are engaging in activities that threaten Australia's security with new tools to conceal their activities from security and law enforcement agencies. In particular, ASIO said the use of encrypted communications by security intelligence targets was -- and still is -- an area of particular concern.

"Australia continues to be a target of espionage through cyber means; the cyber threat is persistent, sophisticated, and not limited by geography," ASIO warned.

"Increasingly, foreign states have acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, cyber espionage capabilities designed to satisfy strategic, operational, and commercial intelligence requirements."

Watching carefully the area of investment flows, ASIO said that while Australia's open and transparent economy, which invites foreign investment, is a welcome and important contributor to Australia's national wealth, it is not without national security risks.

"For example, foreign intelligence services are interested in accessing bulk data sets and privileged public or private sector information, including Australian intellectual property. Developing and implementing effective mitigation strategies for these issues is critical to reducing the threat to an acceptable level," the report says.

Another emerging issue of potential national security concern to ASIO is the lack of diversity of ownership within certain infrastructure sectors.

The agency also said that the number of cybersecurity incidents either detected or reported within Australia represents a fraction of the total threat the country legitimately faces.

While technology provided security and law enforcement agencies with new opportunities to identify activities of security concern, ASIO said building and maintaining technical collection capabilities to stay ahead of the threats proved to be resource intensive.

"Transforming existing agency information and communications technology infrastructure to effectively exploit new capabilities, manage the large volume and variety of data available, and to be adapted easily to new technologies is a major challenge, and one that will require significant, ongoing investment," the agency wrote.

"In addition to technological challenges in the operating environment, we faced heightened threats to our staff, facilities, and information."

ASIO said such challenges required the diversion of resources to "ensure the security and effectiveness" of the agency's operations.

Throughout the period, ASIO said it worked closely with Australia's national security partner agencies, which included work to progress shared national security objectives through joint agency bodies such as the federal, state, and territory Joint Counter Terrorism Teams (JCTT), the National Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC), the Jihadist Network Mapping and Targeting Unit, and the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC).

Similarly, work with international peers was maintained with over 350 partner agencies in 130 countries, ASIO explained.

The intelligence agency specifically worked with counter-terrorism prosecution in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, providing assistance and evidence on telecommunications intercepts, physical surveillance, listening, and tracking devices.

"In 2016-17, we continued to work closely with telecommunications companies regarding the security risks associated with the use of certain companies in their supply chains and risks arising from foreign ownership arrangements," the report says.

"We provided sensitive briefings to the Australian government and the telecommunications sector to outline the threat and, where possible, recommended appropriate mitigation measures."

ASIO said that through its work with ACSC, it regularly observed cyber espionage activity targeting Australia.

"Foreign state-sponsored adversaries targeted the networks of the Australian government, industry, and individuals to gain access to information and progress other intelligence objectives," the agency wrote.

"ASIO provided support to the ACSC's investigations of these harmful activities as well as the centre's work to remediate compromised systems. The number of countries pursuing cyber espionage programs is expected to increase ... as technology evolves, there will be an increase in the sophistication and complexity of attacks."

It isn't just foreign threats on ASIO's radar, with the agency noting it remained alert to, and investigated threats from, malicious insiders.

"Those trusted employees and contractors who deliberately breach their duty to maintain the security of privileged information," ASIO explained. "These investigations continued to be complex, resource-intensive, and highly sensitive."

In-house, ASIO said it also worked to build an enterprise technology program to enable the agency to "excel in using technology and data" to achieve its purpose.

"Given the increasing opportunities and challenges brought about by rapid advances in technology, it is imperative that ASIO is a 'data-enabled organisation', connected to its partners, accountable to the people, innovative in its approach, and sustainable for the long term," the report says.

From July 2018, Australia's new Home Affairs ministry will be responsible for ASIO, Australian Federal Police, Border Force, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Austrac, and the office of transport security. It will see Attorney-General George Brandis hand over some national security responsibility to Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.

Of the ministerial changes and the recommendations of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, ASIO Director-General of Security Duncan Lewis said he believes the new measures will play an important role in strengthening the agency's strategic direction, effectiveness, and coordination of Australia's national security and intelligence efforts, at a time when "the nation is facing complex, long-term threats" to its security.

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