Aussie spy chief laments digital footprints

The head of ASIS said in his first public speech that digital footprints potentially limit effective spying.

Australian Secret Intelligence Services (ASIS) director Nick Warner has said that while the internet is making intelligence gathering much easier, the digital trail left behind by ASIS agents is a potential threat to the secrecy of the organisation.

ASIS, Australia's foreign intelligence collection agency, was set up in secret by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies over 60 years ago in May 1952, and was kept secret from the public until 1972. No director had ever made a speech to the public until yesterday.

Warner, speaking at the Lowy Institute yesterday, reflected on where the agency has come in the last 60 years, and the challenges it faces into the future.

"The growth of new threats to Australia's national security in recent years has redefined and broadened the range of intelligence requirements. From a small, essentially regional body vitally focused on the Cold War, ASIS has evolved into a larger, geographically dispersed organisation helping to safeguard and advance our national interest on a broad front."

ASIS now gathers intelligence across the globe, and creates thousands of reports each year for Australian government agencies. Warner said that while the advent of the internet has provided ASIS with a useful tool for collecting information, it is also a potential problem for the agency.

"Developments in cyber are a two-edged sword for an agency like ASIS," he said. "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."

Broadly, Warner said that the field of "cyber operations" is rapidly evolving, and poses a serious threat to national security in the next decade.

"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. "[Defence Signals Directorate, the 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."

He said that the agency is still relatively small, and gets an annual budget of AU$250 million, but is now "a key component of Australia's national security architecture".

Warner's speech came as The Canberra Times this morning published details of a 2011 review conducted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet into secret IT networks within government security agencies.

According to the report, the IT systems are too fragmented across the agencies, making finding and accessing information between the agencies difficult, and agencies often end up with very expensive IT systems.

ZDNet Australia asked the office of the prime minister for a copy of the report, but it had not been provided at the time of writing.