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Australian Signals Directorate deals with change

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Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) speaks at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Canberra on 29 October 2018. He shared about the growth and changes to the top-secret organisation. This is Burgess’s second turn in the organisation and he’s happy about the changes.

Technology as Driver of Change in Intelligence

As technology evolves and disrupts, cybersecurity risks will follow. Touching on encryption, Burgess noted its necessity in protecting secrets. Yet it is an obstacle when secrets of those who pose a threat to Australia’s national security need to be uncovered.

On the point of the Internet of Things, Burgess is confident it will provide new ways to detect and track threats. However, it will also provide a wider surface area for attacks.

With the rise of cloud, mobility and applications, geotagging has reversed needed concern. Spotting a target’s location and identity becomes easier with anonymising technologies like VPN and the dark web.

Personnel in the service have a far more difficult time. Hence, recruiting the best minds are key to mastering the technology. According to Burgess, the ASD needs a diversity of talent and a talent of diversity.

Australia’s 5G Vendor Ban Reason

Apart from technology, the rising focus on the East will present both challenges and opportunities. The East will become the centre of expertise for technology, research and development, and the digital economy and trade relationships will be facilitated.

However, Australia must be more mindful of the changes which accompany the geopolitical shift.

Referencing the Australian government’s recent decision to ban Chinese 5G network carrier, Burgess insisted the decision was not an easy one. 5G technology underpins many technologies at great speed. If this is the new normal, a good dose of scepticism was needed. Especially since the distinction between core and edge blurs in 5G networks. A threat anywhere in the network threatens the entire network.

“The stakes could not be higher. This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information – it is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend. Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount,” explained Burgess.

In consultation with operators and vendors, the best decision was to exclude high-risk vendors entirely. Work was done to see if 5G networks could still be protected even if the high-risk vendor’s equipment were present.

ASD has moved on from an agency which provides best practices advice to network administrators. Instead, Burgess says ASD’s role is to inform government on how best to navigate major technology and strategic shifts. Mastery in technology will be key.

Changing Capabilities for Changing Times

Old methods of obscuring an attacker’s identity may no longer work. For example, geographic locations have become meaningless since the location is difficult to discern.

Attackers are armed by the internet and technology to deceive intelligence. The sheer volume and complexity of information floating in the cyber sphere makes it more difficult for intelligence personnel to comb and discern.

Furthermore, determining a legitimate offshore foreign intelligence target is no longer a straightforward task. With the obsolesce of landlines and analogue signalling, spotting the attacker is no easy feat.

Hence, threat detection is conducted by looking for communications that exhibit well-known attributes. Burgess explains, “It’s the equivalent of creating an electronic fingerprint to identify foreign intelligence. For example, ASD might build an electronic signature associated with a piece of malware it has seen used overseas and then use this fingerprint to detect this malware being targeted against Australia. Or ASD might determine communication attributes associated with a certain terrorist group that it can use to detect when these terrorists are communicating online.”

Ambiguity of techniques make investigation easier. Without full information, the electronic fingerprint can pinpoint the exact location source of communications. Thus, such techniques are as powerful as foreign intelligence techniques of the past. The key difference is the world today is far more complex.

How Cybersecurity is Changing

“While it is pleasing to see businesses talking about cyber security, I am bemused about many businesses getting excited by data analytics, AI, machine learning. More worryingly I’ve heard of board rooms in Australia contemplating the prospect of hacking back to defend themselves against potential attacks,” muses Burgess.

Hacking is not a cybersecurity strategy. Shout it from the rooftops, it is an illegal act.

The root cause of most attacks is a known problem with a known fix, says Burgess. He then directs audiences to ASD’s Essential Eight, which provides advice on cyber security.

Since cyber attacks are foreseeable events, crying foul is no longer an acceptable excuse. Organisations should question the pros and cons of the software and hardware they use.

Individuals too should be open to changes in government policy for the greater interest of national security.

While no drastic ‘tell-all’ type secrets will be revealed, Burgess promises that ASD will be transparent about its role and the protections that apply to Australians.

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