ASIO turns its spies onto high-tech espionage

Australia’s top spy has flagged a shift in focus for the national security agency ASIO, with more resources for high-tech espionage after a decade of concentrating on terrorism.

ASIO boss David Irvine said on Tuesday that cyber espionage by other countries was escalating threats amid rapid technological change – requiring new skills for intelligence officials and laws to help combat the threats.

”In order to deal with current threats to our security, ASIO is currently in the process of growing its counter-espionage and foreign interference capabilities after a decade of primary focus on terrorism,” Mr Irvine told the Security in Government 2013 conference in Canberra.

But he stressed that terrorism was still a danger, citing fears about young Australians fighting and being radicalised in Syria.

Mr Irvine said Australia’s legislation needed to be upgraded so that the intelligence agencies could continue to lawfully protect Australians while remaining within privacy limits.

His comments came after a furious global debate was sparked by revelations of widespread data collection by the US National Security Agency, following leaks by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

Intercepting communications was no longer ”a couple of alligator clips on a wire”, Mr Irvine said.

”Technology gives us new tools to collect and analyse the data that is the bedrock of intelligence investigations,” he said.

But changing laws to allow the use of such technology was always going to be controversial and needed to be debated.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies recently expressed support for proposals to force internet service providers to store all data for up to two years. They argued that many communications were now done over the internet and, unlike traditional phone records, were not being kept.

”We need to ensure the security and intelligence techniques remain relevant,” Mr Irvine said. ”This is hard to achieve precisely because of the rapidity and the scale of change that confronts us every day.

”We need staff with new and different skill sets who are able to analyse large volumes of data and turn it into actionable intelligence and have the creativity to fuse online with real-world investigations.”

Mr Irvine cited polling by the Lowy Institute that found more than two-thirds of Australians felt the government had the right balance between respecting civil liberties and safeguarding national security