Australia’s cyber spy chief Rachel Noble has challenged what she said are calls to break up the Australian Signals Directorate, arguing that signals intelligence gives the agency an “edge” over its rivals.
In an address to the National Press Club today, the director-general said maintaining ASD’s role as “poacher and gamekeeper” was important, as “both functions are a natural part of one another”.
She described signals intelligence as the “secret sauce”, giving ASD a “cutting edge as cyber security experts over and above any private company and any other government in the world”.
“Our signals intelligence function gives us an enormous edge over our adversaries. It brings with it the benefits of a Five Eyes alliance,” she said on Thursday.
“It is this signals intelligence that makes our ability to give cyber security defensive advice and undertake offensive cyber operations like no one else can.
“The idea that we could draw a line somehow between these functions would take away the very cutting edge that Australia has and needs, over our adversaries.”
Noble said that having fully integrated functions allowed ASD experts to “move seamlessly” between teams and keep its eye firmly on the mission of “protect[ing] the security of Australia”.
She added that ASD also benefited from its partnerships with state governments and the private sector, ensuring Australia has the “best possible national threat picture”.
“Sometimes in public discussion, there is contemplation of a standalone cyber security agency. For the reasons I have just outlined, this is why I would counsel against it,” she said.
Noble did not cite specific examples of breakup calls, and it was not clear where they were coming from.
Offensive cyber used to disrupt criminal syndicate
Noble also used her address to detail a recent cyber offensive operations against cyber criminals that were sending fake SMS messages that enticed people to click on links for Covid-19 payments.
“We worked with Australian telcos to block one malicious IP address at a time, but soon realised two things,” she said.
“Firstly, that approach became a game of whack-a-mole that we couldn’t win and secondly, that the scam was being coordinated by a gang of organised criminals.
“We used our covert online operations and computer network attack capabilities to infiltrate the syndicate and tear it down from the inside."
Noble noted that while the offensive function had started as a “boutique effort using computer network attack and covert online operations to disrupt terrorist threats”, it had now matured.
“Offensive cyber has been fully integrated into ASD’s signals intelligence and cyber security functions and is a mature component of the OneASD mission – to protect our national security,” she said.