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Mike Burgess on the Australian Signals Directorate

“When I returned in January this year, ASD was a completely different place. It was emerging from the shadows and cyber was central to that,” said Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

He was speaking 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.

Since his re-entry, he noticed the veil of secrecy was slowly being lifted. For starters, in July 2018, ASD became a statutory agency in the Defence portfolio, a sign to Burgess that the ASD had come out of the shadows. The ASD is increasingly playing a bigger role in cybersecurity and the Australian government is making efforts towards transparency on sensitive aspects of the organisation’s capabilities. Marking the change is the discussion of offensive cyber, a topic which has never been broached before.

Washing dirty linen in public will not be the case for ASD, however. Burgess reassures that classified information such as the details of their operations will remain secretive. However, the public will always be informed about ASD’s important operations in protecting them against global threats, earning trust and rapport.

ASD’s Role

Performing foreign intelligence and security, ASD’s core mission has not changed. Its stealth in exploiting foreign communications permit the protection of Australia’s national interests, an important quality given today’s nature of cyber threats.

Ultimately, ASD seeks to defend Australia from global threats and help advance Australia’s national interest. Technology is mastered to inform, protect and disrupt.

To inform, the ASD acquires foreign information which is not publicly available in a covert fashion. To protect, the ASD comprehensively understands cyber threats by providing proactive advice and assistance to improve the management of cyber risks by government, business and the community. And to disrupt, offensive cyber capabilities are applied offshore to support military operations, counter-terrorism, counter cyber espionage and serious cyber-enabled crime.

ASD’s intelligence has been used by ASIO and AFP to disrupt attacks which were in the advanced stages of planning. These attacks were targeted at Australia directly or at Australian interests abroad.

In the realm of cybersecurity, the Australian Cyber Security Centre (a part of the ASD), work to protect business and the community from the malicious cyber activity target Australia’s network.

Burgess cited examples when ASD was important in civil discourse. He said, “ASD helped the national census get back online and establish that no data relating to Australians had been compromised. We also provided technical advice to make sure the same-sex marriage survey could be conducted securely.”

Even in the military context, offensive cyber operators work closely with military planners to generate cyber effects to disrupt Daesh in the Middle East.

Reassuring the public that the ASD is no spy, he said, “ASD is both a foreign intelligence and a cyber security agency. We care about the threats posed by people and organisations outside of Australia. And we help protect Australian interests from cyber threats. Foreign signals intelligence and cyber security are two separate activities informed by the capabilities of each. We have no interest in the communications of everyday Australians.”

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