Australian spy watchdog uses paper instead of emails

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.