Speaker: Rachel Noble, Director-General ASD
Location: National Press Club, Canberra
Date of Speech: 18 November 2021
ASD: 75 Years and Ready for Tomorrow
Introduction: As it approaches its 75th birthday, the Australian Signals Directorate's (ASD) functions have grown over the years, but its core missions have remained unchanged. For over 40 years, ASD’s functions have been on the public record. Today, as ever, ASD operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible. It is ASD’s unique capabilities that allow it to continue revealing their secrets, and protecting our own. Rachel will talk about ASD’s history, how offensive cyber is changing ASD and how ASD will contend with the technological challenges of the future.
What a terrible 18 months it has been for the world.
I started my new job as Director-General of ASD with, as you would imagine, enormous excitement. I returned from a fabulous lengthy holiday overseas with my family where I had had plenty of time to imagine how I wanted to lead this amazing organisation, how I might take it from strength to strength to contend with a deteriorating strategic environment now and in the future.
It seems like a distant memory now, at the beginning of 2020 Australia was literally on fire – or so it seemed anyway.
As a new Director-General I had to face into the fact that at one point the fire got merely metres away from one of our key operational buildings and our people were in there working 24/7 to keep Australia safe.
It was a mere six weeks after that and COVID hit.
I mention this upfront because I want to start by acknowledging the incredible people of ASD.
I have been struck by their focus on our mission, their personal resilience and their incredible commitment to keeping Australia safe.
So whilst I indulged in remorseful reflections as the new DG of not being able to get out and actually meet the amazing staff in our organisation, let alone see face-to-face our incredible partners not only in the Five Eyes but also in industry, in the states and territories and around the world, my staff just admirably got on with the job.
So my speech starts with a big thank you to them. And for those who I haven’t met, I hope to see you soon.
Next year is ASD's 75th birthday. So it is beholden upon me to continue to share with you the stories of our history.
I have worked in ASD on and off for the last 25 years. I suppose that makes me a historical artefact.
Our US liaison officer reminded me, some may say rather rudely, that he and I and our beloved others had attended ASD’s 50th anniversary ball together.
I said it surely must have been before I could legally drink!
My own long association with ASD causes me to reflect often about what has changed and what hasn’t changed in that time for us as an agency and for the challenges that we face in the world in which we find ourselves. And what I consistently observe is how relevant our past is to our future.
A quick recap for those who are perhaps hearing about ASD for the first time.
We are a foreign signals intelligence and cyber security agency. Our roots go back to the Second World War.
Then, as we are now, we were charged with spying on the communications, or signals, of foreign adversaries to understand their operational plans and their intentions in order to ensure that Australia and its allies had the best possible chance to win the war and shorten it.
Some historians estimate that the allied code-breaking operation, especially the breaking of the German Enigma encryption machine, shortened the war in Europe by 2 to 4 years. Saving an average of 7 million lives per year.
Then, as now, we were equally charged with ensuring that our own encrypted communications could not be exploited by our enemies so that they could not gain the same advantage that we were looking for over them. As an intelligence agency we are best placed from a cyber security point of view to understand how to protect Australia from adversaries … well … like us.
We are, as some say, the poacher and the gamekeeper.
We are living in one of the most strategically uncertain times of my generation and perhaps even the generation before me. We are at the crossroads, some are opining, of a potential major global power shift.
As the Prime Minister said in July last year, “The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of rising strategic competition. Our region will not only shape our future, increasingly though, it is the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.”
More recently, the Director of the CIA, William Burns, said: "[We are] now facing our toughest geopolitical test in a new era of great power rivalry, CIA will be at the forefront of this effort."
"Throughout our history, CIA has stepped up to meet whatever challenges come our way," Mr Burns said.
I could say the same of our ASD.
And others have opined that should this global power shift actually occur, it may not happen peacefully.
I hope that’s wrong. But it’s not my place to make assessments about that one way or another.
What I will say is that throughout history it has been, and remains, the job of intelligence agencies to enable our government and allied governments to have the best possible understanding of foreign adversaries’ intent in order to help the government make the best decisions for our national interest and avoid misunderstandings or miscalculations. That’s what ASD has been charged with since its creation.
It is also a vitally important role of intelligence agencies, if the worst does happen, that we can ensure not only the best possible force protection and overwatch of our military and that of our allies, but that we are also able to generate capabilities through intelligence collection and more recently offensive cyber effects that will greatly shorten any conflict – like we always have.
We never seek conflict.
But we do want our adversaries to know that we are here. We want them to calculate, Today is not the day.
The need for Australia to have its own sovereign signals intelligence and cyber security agency was a consequence of World War Two.
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.
That’s our job. And we are focused on that mission. And we have done that throughout our history.
Why are we the poacher and the gamekeeper?
I referred before to the role of ASD as poacher and gamekeeper.
Over time my predecessors and I have tried to explain what we mean by this. Perhaps what we haven’t really succeeded in doing though is explaining why the two functions are a natural part of one another and why our newest function of cyber offensive operations is a natural evolution of both.
Our signals intelligence function gives us an enormous edge over our adversaries. It brings with it the benefits of a Five Eyes alliance.
Sigint is what the Five Eyes was born from – we are the original Five Eyes. It is a genuine, fully-integrated partnership.
We each take our share of the load and genuinely seek not to duplicate each other’s efforts.
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 is actually more than 75 years old.
We have built trust and confidence among each other over that time and we deliver to each other the most impactful intelligence in the world.
It also is the result of many decades of capability investment and insight into the world’s communications.
We see into the internet, the good one and the bad, dark version of it, and we share tradecraft and capabilities that are world-leading.
Signals intelligence is the secret sauce to making us all world-class cyber agencies.
It is this intelligence, the decades of investment in capabilities and the expertise of our people that give us a cutting edge as cyber security experts over and above any private company and any other governments in the world.
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.
In ASD those functions are fully integrated, our people move seamlessly among those teams, and we are committed to continuing to ensure we are one ASD team in pursuit of one mission – to protect the security of Australia.
Sometimes in public discussion there is contemplation of a stand-alone cyber security agency. For the reasons I have just outlined, this is why I would counsel against it.
Our partnerships with other governments, including our states and territories, and the private sector can give Australia the best possible national threat picture for us all to act against those who threaten us through cyberspace.
We are committed to deepening those partnerships.
And our most critical private sector partners, those who run our critical infrastructure and our systems of national significance, must be part of our full national defensive shield and must assure us all that they can meet a minimum cyber security standard.
So when we ring you and tell you we think you’ve got a problem and give you some advice about what you might want to do about that, I implore you to take that advice and understand that it might be coming from some of the most top secret and sensitive insights in the world.
We might not be able to tell you the details of what those insights are and in the end you can take your own chances for not listening!
But in the national interest, we would prefer that you didn’t take that chance.
How is offensive cyber changing ASD?
I want to turn now to the changes that I think might be ahead for ASD.
Our involvement in World War II and more recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, has always seen ASD play a largely supporting role. We’ve been there to provide intelligence that delivers advantage for our war-fighters, to watch over them in the field and to protect the security of their communications.
Over the years our people have very often been at the front lines, side-by-side with our military.
Our Siginters and cyber security defenders have often put their lives on the line.
But the future of war-fighting is predicted by some to be more likely to begin in cyberspace. As the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, said earlier this year in Hawaii, “The way we fight the next major war is going to look very different from the way we fought the last ones”.
The youngest of ASD’s functions, offensive cyber started out as a boutique effort using computer network attack and covert online operations to disrupt terrorist threats.
Since then, offensive cyber has been fully integrated into ASD’s signals intelligence and cyber security functions and is a mature component of the One ASD mission – to protect our national security.
Malicious cyber activities pose a significant risk to Australia’s national security, and to international stability.
As part of a full spectrum of ASD’s efforts to defend Australia against cyber attackers, the offensive cyber capability is used to strike back against offshore cybercriminals conducting malicious activities.
Using our intelligence insights and unique accesses, ASD observed criminals preying on anxious Australians by sending them fake SMSes enticing them to click on links purporting to be offering access to COVID support payments.
We worked with Australian telcos to block one malicious IP address at a time, but soon realised two things.
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. I am proud to say that, to this day, that syndicate has not been able to restart their vile business and we’ll be there if they try.
In cyberspace, ASD is increasingly becoming the first and last line of digital defence that protects our country from cyber attacks, and thwarts those who seek to attack Australia by launching offensive cyber operations of our own. And we are right now fighting that battle with criminals – state actors and serious and organised crime.
And to be very clear, under Australian law, we consider both state actors and serious and organised criminals to be undertaking criminal activity when going after Australian networks.
Twenty-five per cent of cyber security incidents responded to by ASD last year were against our critical infrastructure – energy, water, telcos and health to name a few.
Some were state actors undertaking intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and pre-positioning malicious software most likely with a view to activate it at a time of their choosing to deny, degrade or disrupt critical services to Australians.
They are also capable of moving laterally between networks – getting in to the weakest and moving up into the strongest by using trusted network pathways to get there.
Our goal is to defend our networks by pushing them off before harm is done and to undertake offensive cyber operations to deny them the benefits of their crime.
As Minister Dutton said recently of asymmetric capabilities, offensive cyber capabilities are there, along with other defence capabilities, "to send a clear message: that the cost an adversary would incur in threatening our interests outweighs the benefits of doing so”.
As I said before, we are here to make an adversary think: today is not the day.
Being part of an offensive cyber team in ASD involves working on some of the most unique and cutting-edge operations in the Australian Government.
How does ASD do it? And what does the future hold?
I get asked a lot about how ASD will contend with the technological challenges of the future: 6G, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning to name a few.
My answer is simple – with the same innovation, imagination and creativity that we have dealt with that challenge over the last 75 years.
I want to take you through the speed-dating version of technology over the last 40 years to show you what I mean. I want to show you just how incredible the changes have been that ASD has had to contend with to stay on top of its game.
In the 1970s Morse code, analogue voice and the teleprinter were primary telecommunications means. Fax machines became mainstream office products.
Back then our tools of the trade were radio receivers, pen, paper and typewriter.
In the 1980s we saw the emergence of digital technologies in many parts of society and in 1988 the first transoceanic fibre-optic system was laid.
Our tools of the trade then reflected this digital transformation. Computers were brought into our workplace, replacing manual paper-based processes. And we acquired Australia’s first supercomputer in 1986. It has about one-twentieth of the computing power of a modern smartphone.
The 1990s digital transformation sees most telcos replace analogue with digital systems. Speed and capacity increases dramatically. And in 1997 Wi-Fi starts.
Our tools of the trade are all computer-based, advanced analytic tools and techniques developed to keep up with the expansion of communications technologies.
In the 2000s the world doesn’t end due to the Y2K bug.
The dot-com bubble sees the rapid rise of internet start-ups. And affordable broadband internet access, followed in the next decade by the Internet of Things and mobile broadband.
Demand for bandwidth explodes. The smartphone becomes part of our lives.
And the rise of privacy concerns prompts widespread adoption of data encryption. Cyber security becomes mainstream as concerns about vulnerabilities in computer systems increases, cloud-based computing becomes a thing and we see the rise of hyper-scalers.
Our workforce skillsets are expanded to include data science and big data engineering. We started to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The point of telling you about all of those changes is to demonstrate ASD’s capacity to adapt and change at the pace and speed at which our targets and technology have evolved.
There have been times in our history where we thought that we might go dark – that is, we could not see or hear the information we are targeting.
I reflect on the significant challenge that faced us as the world went from HF and we were challenged to be able to collect against our targets through the air to them transitioning to high-speed optical fibre.
I recall at the time the conversations in ASD about how difficult this would be for us. The irony now is that we feared the lack of communications on the airways and yet now most of us will connect to the internet by Wi-Fi. That’s not to say that the change didn’t bring huge challenges for us. Through a mastery of our business and innovation, the people of ASD prevailed.
It is throughout these decades that successive Australian Parliaments have made legislative changes to enable us to continue to do our job within strict parameters, in a way that has continued to keep pace with technological change.
We have also been a great beneficiary of significant capability investment over the decades.
Great Sigint and cyber activities are an expensive business.
It is beholden on all of us in ASD to continue to demonstrate the benefit of signals intelligence and cyber defence and offence to our national security.
I believe that we have this in hand today and we are ready and focused for what we will need to do in the future. We understand our role well and its profundity in these uncertain strategic times.
If any of my stories today have captured your imagination then I’d encourage you to think about a career in ASD. Or since I’m a team player and community-minded, in the intelligence community or in the broader national security arena.
We are looking for people with every possible degree and skills. And we don’t mind even if you don’t have a degree – as long as you’ve got commitment, imagination and courage and you want to do something for your country, then ASD is the place for you.
Please look out for our stickers and flyers to help you find out how to apply or go to asd.gov.au/careers
I want to finish where I started – people matter and I know that the people of ASD have totally got this and we are ready to serve our country whatever happens. We are audacious in concept, and meticulous in execution. We are a great team, and I hope you might want to join us!