ASD the 'first and last line of digital defence' against malicious state actors, cyber crime: Rachel Noble

Australian Signals Directorate boss Rachel Noble. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Australian Signals Directorate boss Rachel Noble. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Malicious state actors and offshore cyber criminals are posing a serious threat to national security and international stability as the world experiences "one of the most strategically uncertain times" in recent history, one of Australia's most senior spy officials has warned.

Australian Signals Directorate boss Rachel Noble said her agency, which is celebrating its 74th year in operation, was increasingly becoming the "first and last line of digital defence" against cyber adversaries in a speech to the National Press Club on Thursday.

She also emphasised the strategic importance of the nearly-century old Five Eyes intelligence alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, praising it as a "genuine, fully integrated partnership".

"We each take our share of the load and genuinely seek not to duplicate each other's efforts," Ms Noble said on Thursday.

"In all of the multi-lateral engagement experience that I've had in my career I have never experienced anything so profound as this alliance."

It follows Prime Minister Scott Morrison's speech on Tuesday, declaring the AUKUS agreement as "much more than nuclear submarines" and including intelligence and information sharing between the US and UK.

Ms Noble said around one-quarter of the incidents responded to by the signals agency in 2020 were against critical infrastructure, including energy, water, telecommunications and health services.

Intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and pre-positioning malicious software were among some of attempts undertaken by foreign actors and criminal syndicates.

But she said the agency was well-placed to take on the threats, adding they were "the poacher and the gamekeeper".

Her message to would-be attackers, both malicious state actors and offshore organised crime, was "not today".

"We never seek conflict," she said.

"But we do want our adversaries to know that we are here. We want them to calculate: today is not the day."

But the agency head added it was not a toothless tiger if things escalated in the cyber domain.

"ASD is here to provide intelligence and effects to help avoid miscalculation and conflict, and if the worse happens, to shorten it and win it," she said.

In one example, a foreign gang of cyber criminals began targeting Australians with scam text messages, promising COVID support payments.

ASD's first approach was to shut down offending IP addresses with the help of telcos but Ms Noble said the agency soon realised it was like "a game of whack a mole".

Instead, the agency decided to infiltrate the syndicate and brought it down from the inside.

She said the initiative had been a success and the criminals had yet to resurface.

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Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews will address a closed panel on Thursday about the importance of Australian businesses adopting new principles to safeguard critical technologies and supply chains.

She said it was more crucial than ever in light of "increasing geostrategic uncertainty" and Australia's heavy reliance on technologies, including artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum computing and drones.

The principles will encourage businesses to understand security risks related to their supply chains, set minimum transparency requirements for supplier standards and international benchmarks as well as consider how ethical suppliers are in line with international laws and human rights.

"As we emerge from the pandemic, Australia faces a range of threats from malicious cyber actors and increasing geostrategic uncertainty," she said in comments to The Canberra Times ahead of her panel appearance on Thursday.

"We can't allow our growing reliance on a few critical technologies - that can be hacked, held to ransom, or otherwise disrupted - to become a major strategic vulnerability for the nation.

This story Hunting cyber gangs a 'game of whack a mole', spy boss warns first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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