The head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) has warned IT security challenges "pose one of the biggest threats of the decade", as the security landscape makes covert intelligence operations more difficult for agents.
Director-general Nick Warner made the comments in the first public speech given by a head of the secretive spy agency in the 60 years since its inception, as part of a bid to lift the veil off an agency that endured "little public awareness" of its contribution to national security.
From its creation as a "small entity focused on the cold war", ASIS had broadened its scope to provide intelligence support for Australian troops and foreign policy efforts whose work had gained "new urgency and importance".
It worked with agencies including the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Information and Security Organisation and the Defence Security Department, along with many private sector organisations.
ASIS remained an agency driven by human intelligence but was increasing powered by agents working "behind the scenes" from the agency's headquarters.
Warner said the separate, but inter-related revolution in IT and biometrics would "fundamentally alter the environment in which agents operate", while progress in information security was a "two-edged edged sword that offered new ways of collecting data" but made covert operations difficult.
The spy chief's statements come at a time when Australia and its allies are ramping up dialogue about information security, including intelligence sharing, moves to create legislation to assist international law enforcement efforts against cybercrime, and the need for rules governing network-centric warfare.
Private defence firms were also making significant in roads to cyber security and had purchased prominent information security firms to add to their traditional portfolios.
Warner's comments included a pledge that the agency did not use violence or threats in its work, a statement perhaps made to mark a rite of passage since the famous bungled ASIS training exercise in which recruits brandished guns and abused staff at a Melbourne hotel.