‘Not all Australians are the good guys’: Spy boss defends surveillance of citizens

The head of Australia’s top foreign cyber-intelligence agency says spying on some Australians is essential because authorities are in a “near-impossible game” to defeat terrorism and espionage.

Rachel Noble — who last year became the first woman to lead the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) — is set to lay out the organisation’s history in unprecedented detail, while warning Australia’s strategic circumstances are the most threatening in decades.

ASD was established as the Defence Signals Bureau in 1947, but its existence was only publicly acknowledged in 1977.

It is tasked with intercepting foreign communications and disrupting the activities of overseas criminals and hackers.

But the Federal Government now wants ASD to be able to access privately owned critical infrastructure networks in Australia to protect them from overseas cyber attacks.

The Coalition also plans to expand ASD’s powers so it can help Australian law enforcement agencies disrupt serious criminal activities at home as well as abroad.

Defence Signals Directorate’s Canberra HQ under construction, Russell Offices, c 1990
Defence Signals Directorate’s Canberra HQ under construction in the 1990s.(Supplied: ASD)

The prospect of ASD helping police to target Australians has stirred intense debate in Canberra. Police raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst after she reported the Federal Government was contemplating expanding surveillance powers for spy agencies.

In a speech to the Australian National University’s National Security College today, Ms Noble will declare: “ASD cannot, under law, conduct mass surveillance on Australians.”

But she will also point out an intelligence bill passed in 2001 had already given the organisation the power to collect intelligence on Australians overseas who posed a threat, although only with ministerial authorisation.

“For more than 20 years ASD’s role in relation to intelligence collection against Australians has been laid bare on the face of legislation. It is hardly a modern revelation that ASD has this role,” she will say.

“Transparency is not a new feature of our story — some people may have just forgotten what has already been said over many years.”

Black and white illustration of man in army warfare in front of ISIS flag.
Ms Noble will warn: “Some Australians are agents of a foreign power. Some Australians are terrorists.”(ABC News: Emma Machan)

She will also deliver a curt defence of the agency’s surveillance of some Australians.

“Some Australians are agents of a foreign power. Some Australians are terrorists.

“Some Australians take up weapons and point them at us and our military. Some Australians are spies who are cultivated by foreign powers and are not on our side.”

DSD Barracks
The Defence Signals Division HQ in Melbourne in the 1970s.(Supplied: ASD)

‘A near-impossible game’

Lawyers and civil liberties groups have been pushing back against expanding powers of spy agencies, warning they undermine privacy and are open to widespread abuse.

Ms Noble will not tackle those criticisms head on, but she will also deliver a broader defence of secrecy, saying the organisation must protect its tactics and capabilities in the face of growing threats.

“Transparency is important but not at the expense of us losing the very capability that we use to keep Australia safe. There is a careful balance to be struck,” the speech reads.

“We are in a near-impossible game. The threat to our way of life is more real today than at any time I have known in my career.”

Successive governments have slowly revealed more details about the way ASD operates, although much of what the organisation does remains highly classified.

In 2016 the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull first confirmed Australia possessed offensive cyber capabilities. The Government has not laid out what those capabilities are but says Australia is willing to use them to target cyber criminals overseas.

Ms Noble will only say some of the ASD’s capabilities are “unique in the world” and “expensive and precious”.

She will also make a caustic reference to the way women have been treated when working in technical and scientific roles, saying she disliked her first job at ASD as a code breaker in the late 1980s.

“I didn’t like that job at all. I’ll tell you about that in a different speech, and about what we hope we’ve learned from how we have historically failed to engage women in STEM,” the speech reads.

“Here’s my spoiler alert — don’t starve them of human contact and make them sit alone with a computer all day.”