Terrorism, espionage, and cyber: ASIO's omne trium perfectum

ASIO's outgoing Director-General of Security reflects on the 'security triptych' that is of upmost concern to Australia's national security.

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Image: Lowy Institute

"I had to remind myself the other day that when 9-11 took place, of course, there were no tweets, it's interesting. It only seems like yesterday. There was no social media as we know it today," Australia's Director-General of Security Duncan Lewis said during an address to the Lowy Institute.

Since then, a lot has changed in the global threat landscape. This was the underlying message delivered by Lewis as he spoke on Wednesday night, one of the last times before he hands his Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) duties over to Mike Burgess on September 15.

Reflecting on his time as ASIO's 13th Director-General of Security, Lewis pointed to the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum -- the rule of three.

"It suggests that everything that comes in threes is perfect. This principle is echoed through art, literature, theology, and perhaps surprisingly to you, it's echoed in some ways through security and intelligence," he said.

"In addition, I'd offer another security triptych perhaps, that we have espionage, terrorism, and cyber as three matters to consider. These elements conflate to represent the very real and pressing national threat and they are the threats that ASIO is most focused on."

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While globalisation has delivered a number of benefits to mankind, Lewis highlighted that with the good comes the not so good, singling out cyber space.

"For example, while cyber is a highly effective vector which brings prosperity, learning, and awareness, it also serves to broadcast propaganda, to spread violent ideologies or false information, to interfere with political processes, gives us the opportunity to conduct cyber acts and attacks, as well as taking, withholding, and destroying information," he explained.

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"Covert attempts to influence and shape the views of the public, media, the government, and the diaspora communities, both within Australia and overseas is now with us every day, simply, it is happening because it can."

The outgoing Director-General said Australia remains a rich target for state-sponsored cyber attack, and Australia's cybersecurity remains a matter of ongoing concern.

Since he took the helm in September 2014, 16 major disruption operations have been conducted in relation to imminent terrorist attack planning, and there have been seven terrorist attacks which have "successfully" targeted people in Australia. There's also the range of abhorrent, brutal terrorist attacks globally that have affected Australians.

"These attacks are varied in sophistication and scale, and in addition to physical attacks, terrorists have for some years, of course, been using digital platforms as a means to proselytise their causes," Lewis said.

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While ASIO considers terrorism to be a serious issue, having plateaued at an "unacceptably high level", the risks of counter-espionage and foreign interference are on a "growth path".  

"The issue of espionage and foreign interference is by far and away the most serious issue going forward," he said.

"Communities and countries are able to interfere in one another's business now because you can, there are conduits through all of those technological advances of globalisation, the internet, instant communications, and all those things we're familiar with, now social media that will enable influence to be exerted remotely."

The severity of cyber, however, Lewis is sheepish to classify.

"I think the jury is still a little out on the cyber issue, and I don't say that by way of pushing the thing down to the right, because it is a problem, here and now," he said. "The point I'm making is that we are getting a better understanding, I think, of the breadth and the depth and the seriousness of the cyber vector as a threat to us."

ASIO's relationship with technology

In 2017, former CEO of Telstra David Thodey, before he set off on a probe of the Australian public service, conducted a review of ASIO's relationship with technology.

Lewis said it was found that ASIO required a new business model to position itself to take advantage of big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, among a handful of other emerging technologies.

"ASIO is implementing the review's recommendations through our enterprise transformation program, this is the central plank by which ASIO is shifting to ensure that it's well-positioned for the future," Lewis said.

"Among our achievements to date, we've engaged with new technology partners to ensure we're on the cutting edge of digital and technological innovation and we've developed a new operating model to ensure that ASIO's functions continue to work seamlessly to deliver intelligence outcomes."

According to Lewis, ASIO is introducing contemporary ways of working to support its future as a digitally-enabled organisation.

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A local ASD arm a 'complicated' proposition

Lewis was asked whether he believes ASIO has sufficient surveillance powers, and if the organisation could be assisted by a domestic-focused capability of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

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He responded by saying there's a balance between the right to privacy and the obligation of the individual, and the obligation of the state to protect.

"We have had, I guess through necessity, over the last decade or so, a substantial increase in the powers and authorities of security and law enforcement agencies. The laws have been adjusted, tweaked, or created in order to meet emerging threats," Lewis said.

But giving ASD local capabilities is "complicated".

"It has a history of being focused entirely, and with no exception, on foreign targets," Lewis said. "Cyber, we are growing into this space, the learning is emerging every day, new information about how we are threatened or where we are advantaged by the cyber vector, and I think that as we have those discussions, it is necessary to have a look at capabilities such as the ASD to see whether it can inform, or assist, or be deployed in the extreme, in protecting Australians."

"There are, in my view, two kinds of people in the world: There are Australian citizens and there is everybody else. And it is very important in the way in which intelligence and law enforcement agencies operate in this country, are mindful of that," he said, asking his words to be taken very strongly.

The ASD can support ASIO, but it must be done in a warranted fashion. Lewis said he is comfortable with that, as ASIO is designed to manage its relationship with Australian citizens.

"We are pedantically lawful, pedantically conscious of this difference between Australians and everybody else, the difference between security intelligence and foreign intelligence," Lewis continued.

The impact of Prime Ministerial instability

When Lewis joined the Australian Public Service, former Prime Minister John Howard had been in office for around a decade. Since then, there has been a number of Prime Ministers and the buffoonery has indeed had an impact on national security.

"I did the count the other day -- it's seven, that's if you count Mr Rudd twice," Lewis said.

"If I think about it carefully, what has changed over those 10 years or more is that the pulse of politics is moving increasingly quickly, while the pulse of policy making remains on a fairly long sigmoidal curve, and it's those two things ... politics versus what is a more gentle, and perhaps more gentlemanly sine curve that goes to policy formulation, coming into conflict. And I think that is what's most difficult in the national security space."

In addition to that, Lewis said, is the long list of more complex challenges in front of the government.

"There are more moving parts, there are more complicated and nuanced issues to be addressed, the machinery of government is bigger, the country is bigger, our relationships internationally are more complicated, and as we reflect ... the strategic circumstances of which Australia finds itself are more uncertain, more unpredictable than they were before. The churn of prime ministerial leadership is a factor," he said.

"Stability is a virtue, in many respects, and it has had something of an impact on security, but I must say there is kind of an enduring dimension to the security debate ... I think we're doing okay, the national security debate is far more sophisticated and complicated ... discussion now within government than it was 10, 15 years ago."

In summarising his discussion on the evolution of ASIO as it marks its 70th anniversary, Lewis said he leaves the "modern, complex, and dynamic" organisation being extremely proud and confident of its ability to protect Australia and Australians.

"Australia remains, by world standards, a wealthy, wonderful, and secure country, with opportunity abounding and human capital in abundance," he concluded.

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