‘Not All Australians Are Good Guys:’ Head of Australia’s Foreign Intelligence Agency

September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

The head of Australia’s cyber technological intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)  has spoken publicly about the duties of the bureau to assuage concerns over privacy.

Rachel Noble—who is the first woman to head ASD—outlined during an address to the Australian National University in Canberra on Sep. 1, that ASD like the more well know American National Security Agency was a “foreign intelligence agency” specialising in gathering and intercepting overseas communications, including radio, cyber, and electronic communications.

ASD’s mission Noble explained was to advise the government on foreign strategic and military developments, as well as to protect Australia from cyber threats, while conducting its own cyber-offensives.

Noble also took pains in her speech to assert that ASD does not have broad domestic powers to spy on Australians saying, “ASD cannot, under law, conduct mass surveillance on Australians.”

Debate surrounding the ASD’s powers was triggered two years ago when the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. published information about government ministers seeking to expand its capabilities to monitor Australians on home soil.

Australian Parliament
Tourists walk around the forecourt of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Oct. 16, 2017. (REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo)

Key figures at the time responded to the reports, saying there was “no proposal to increase the ASD’s powers to collect intelligence on Australians or to covertly access their private data,” according to AAP.

Noble said that laws introduced in 2001 by then-Senator John Faulker, made it mandatory for the agency to obtain written authorisation before any information-gathering could occur domestically. No authorisation can exceed six months unless renewed by the defence minister.

All activities conducted by the ASD must be connected to its legislated functions. Including situations where individuals present a safety risk, are acting for a foreign power, threatening security, breaching a United Nations sanction, smuggling of people or money, and illegally transferring intellectual property.

“These are the rules by which ASD still operates today – 20 years later,” she said.

Noble said ASD staff are trained in their obligations and responsibilities.

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A man at the computer on Dec. 27, 2011. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

“For more than 20 years ASD’s role in relation to intelligence collection against Australians has been laid bare on the face of legislation,” she says.

“And I’m sorry if this is news to you, but not all Australians are the good guys,” she added.

“Some Australians are agents of a foreign power,” Noble continued. “Some Australians are terrorists. Some Australians take up weapons and point them at us and our military.”

“Some Australians are spies who are cultivated by foreign powers and are not on our side,” she added.

However, she emphasised that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation was ultimately responsible for handling domestic threats, not the ASD.

Touching on the issue of expanding power for the nation’s intelligence agency, Noble said there needed to be conversations on how to manage contemporary threats, and whether they could lead to legislative change.

It was the role of politicians; however, not public servants, to decide how best to address any new risks.