Australian spy watchdog uses paper instead of emails

Australian spy watchdog uses paper instead of emails

Summary: The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security has an old-fashioned method for avoiding leaks of emails: all external communication is done via paper.


The Australian security and intelligence watchdog has a novel method of ensuring that sensitive data is not leaked out of her organisation: there is no way to email out of the agency, and external communication is usually conducted by paper.

Following the leak of sensitive Australian Signals Directorate slides indicating that the organisation had tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other members of the Indonesian government, Australian government departments are facing scrutiny in Senate Estimates this week over their methods of storing and securing their data.

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Dr Vivienne Thom, is responsible for reviewing the work conducted by Australia's spy organisations including ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and Australian Signals Directorate. Her office employs just 14 people in total, and is often required to visit the offices of the spy organisations where her staff have full access to the highly-secretive systems of Australia's spy agencies.

Appearing before Senate Estimates on Monday, Thom said that the network inside her office is not connected to the wider internet, and had "very good document and network security", and that for an additional layer of security, her office avoids emailing people outside of the organisation.

"We do not send emails, except internally on the system on which we keep our very sensitive documents. It is a local area network within the office," she said.

"How do you transmit outside that network to your boss or to the agencies that you deal with?" Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam asked.

"We deal mainly in paper," Thom said.

ASIO director general David Irvine told Estimates on Monday that his office began conducting an internal audit "as soon as it became clear what sort of information was being put out into the public domain", following the leak of documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on Monday.

He indicated that the agency has an idea of what documents it has given to the NSA but he declined to provide any additional information.

"We have a good idea of what information we have shared with other allied and friendly agencies, but I will not go any further than that," he said.

Topics: Security, Government, Government AU, Australia


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • Think Local

    Yes email seems to be the method that most organisations use to do business whether it is secure or not. Australian based Cyer Security company obsecure can assit in the process by separating keys at object level, apply data classification to authentication methods, never persists data outsie the network and overcomes all transborder data flow issues.
    Paul Waite
  • Paper more secure than email?

    Just a bit confused with the logic here, that paper is more secure than email? If something will get leaked, it will get leaked regardless of the format. Surely a better scenario is using high level encryption? If the emails are intercepted and high enough encryption is used, then breaking in becomes extremely difficult, as opposed to intercepting.
    Seems ASIO is stuck in the 1950's cold war thinking...
    • This isn't ASIO!

      If you read the article properly, you will note that it is the "Watchdog Office", not ASIO. I may not be dealing in sensitive political material but I run two LANs one of which has no internet access. While it makes software patches and security updates a hassle, it keeps intruders OUT of my digital media.

      I'll refer you back to the ABC's "Four Corners" story which revealed that ASIO had been compromised and someone else is now in possession of the complete layout and plans of its yet-to-be-outfitted new office building. ASIO has two choices: abandon the building and start again or comprehensively redesign the interior.
  • spying

    The espionage has multiple form, the most agency has to apply as the situation requires, but whether the secret to be kept strictly. In the old day, the espionage authority used the human for picking up the information, but later on, they used paper. Those espionage forms could remain the secret, unless the agent arrested or double agent.
    Nowadays, the cyber is available and convenient for the spying, but everyone could reach the technology then penetrate easily into the top espionage office, so paper could keep the secret more than email, therefore its way loses the time and inconvenient. The espying mission collects all the information then sorts out, so internet could be better for archive.
    Every nation has to have the espying, that is the security and national interest. The spying applies not only enemy, but also allies, the nation trust no one, sometimes the friend betrayal. Indonesia spies on Australia too, but no body told, however a stupid agent Edward Snowden, who betrays his country and childish acts, he leaks the national top secret to enemy, counterpart then it becomes the problem for US and its allies as Australia.
    Indonesia angers the Australia spying, but they spy on Australia long time. However the cause should be raised by asylum seeker, Indonesia loses the profit from the Middle East tourist turn asylum seeker after pay for people smuggle then taken a short trip by sea. Indeed, Indonesia has got so much money from Australia: bout $ 600 million for annual aid, actually the tsunami in India Ocean, Australia gave away a billion dollars.
    Unfortunately, Indonesia government acts like a kid: a Indonesia representative accused the border protection of Coalition to turn back the boat is illegal, but the boat, crew are Indonesian. The Indonesia government plays the bush law, so Australia could cut the aid and reduce the tourist to Bali, that is better way to prove the independence of our country.
    Hoa Minh Truong.
    ( author)
    hoa minh truong
  • hmmmm...

    I was wondering what that hi tech construction next to the air conditioning tower on their roof was... but the cooing and fluttering emanating from the thing had me stumped... until now!