• Montane PS Staff

Foreign Espionage in Australia (updated)

The Australian Government defines espionage as, “a government or individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information.” Any privileged information not usually found in the public domain can be of interest to foreign entities. Aggregating information on a state’s economic position and decision making is a core task of foreign powers; foreign powers have an interest and desire to coerce and manipulate Australian Government, business, and individual decision-making to benefit their political, economic and commercial interests.

Anyone can be the target of foreign espionage.

In January 2019, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) informed a parliamentary inquiry that the organisation requires sweeping new national security laws as the threat posed by foreign espionage is worse than during the cold war; adding that there was a “pervasive” threat of foreign actors seeking to influence Australian society.


Moreover, in September 2019 outgoing ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis warned that espionage and foreign interference - including the financial influence of political parties - is ‘unprecedented’ and has outstripped terrorism as the biggest threat facing Australia. “Terrorism has plateaued - it is at an unacceptably high level - we have attacks continuing, they are regular,” Mr Lewis said at the Lowy Institute headquarters in Sydney,” “Unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents, the harm from acts of espionage may not be present for years, even decades, after the activity has occurred. These sorts of activities are typically quiet, insidious and have a long tail.” Lewis went on to say that Australia remains a “rich target” for state-sponsored cyberattacks.

Regardless of the methods employed by hostile services and nation-states, Australia is currently the target of sophisticated and persistent espionage and foreign interference activities from a range of nations.

Intelligence agencies recently described the level of threat currently faced within Australia from foreign espionage and interference activities as unprecedented; and higher now, than it was at the height of the cold war. Agencies have also uncovered cases where foreign spies have travelled to Australia with the intention of setting up sophisticated hacking infrastructure targeting computers containing sensitive and classified information.


In a speech to the Australian National University's National Security College on 01 September 2020, Ms Rachel Noble, the Director-General of The Australian Signals Directorate warned that “I'm sorry if this is news to you, but not all Australians are the good guys," Ms Noble said. "Some Australians are agents of a foreign power. 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." Further, Ms Noble added that "We are in a near-impossible game. The threat to our way of life is more real today than at any time I have known in my career."

Some foreign governments, supported by state-based entities, are actively involved in state-sponsored espionage.

ASIO has also previously informed a parliamentary inquiry that the organisation requires sweeping new national security laws as the threat posed by foreign espionage is worse than during the cold war; adding that there was a “pervasive” threat of foreign actors seeking to influence Australian society.


Cyber espionage is another present and evolving threat and considered a key operational enabler for state-based entities. The Australian Cyber Security Centre’s (ACSC) 2017 Threat Report indicates that ‘Australia continues to be a target of persistent and sophisticated cyber espionage directed by foreign intelligence services – and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Such operations may be supported and facilitated in part by human sources operating within the target’s ICT environment.


To facilitate their activities, state-based entities use human source intelligence gathering operations to obtain privileged information from the Australian public or private sectors.

Foreign espionage can include the recruitment of past, current or potential future employees or contractors.

Further, in April 2018, the then Australian Defence Minister detailed that approximately 400 Australian businesses may have been targeted by suspected state-sponsored cyberattacks. These attacks were part of a widespread cyber campaign that affected millions of machines worldwide. Further, recent media reporting also suggests a significant cyber campaign by FIS against the Australian government and commercial entities - known as Operation Cloud Hopper - by a group identified as Advanced Persistent Threat 10 (APT10).


In August 2019, APT41 was identified by security firm FireEye in a detailed report. On 19 September 2019, Sky News Australia and Reuters reported that Australian intelligence agencies have reportedly determined a foreign actor was again responsible for a cyberattack on the Australian parliament and major political parties before the federal election. The recently uncovered compromise of the Australian National University’s (ANU) ICT systems - likely attributed to a foreign state actor – has unfortunately provided large quantities of personal data and information of government employees which may be used for future attacks or recruitment opportunities. It has been estimated that up to 200,000 people were affected by the breach, dating back 19 years.

In 2020, ASIO disrupted a major foreign espionage network operating in Australia that successfully recruited a government official with security access to classified defence technology, in what the security agency has described as a “nest of spies”.

The spies also groomed current and former politicians, officials of an unnamed state police service, and sought access to sensitive security protocols for a major airport via a public servant. This information was disclosed on within the 2021 annual threat assessment delivered by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general Mike Burgess, who has ordered dozens of foreign agents be removed from the country.

Further, during a follow up interview, the Director-General warned that the threat of nation-state espionage and foreign interference due to escalating regional tensions is set to supplant terrorism as the greatest threat to Australian security by 2025.

In a stark assessment of global strategic conflict, primarily competition between the US and China, ASIO has informed the government it believes “pre-placement” of sleeper software to sabotage Australia’s critical commercial, industrial and military ­infrastructure is emerging as a major threat to our “way of life". “We think, as you look out to 2025, espionage and foreign interference will supplant terrorism as this country’s principal security concern,” Mr Mike Burgess said in an interview with The Weekend Australian, going on to say that “That is something that has not yet been reported publicly … it’s got to be put in context.

“Threat to life is a priority. And the current ‘probable’ threat level of terrorism means people would lose their lives. Despite that, we think espionage and foreign interference will supplant terrorism … the level of activity coming at us and against us will be relentless.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Burgess said the espionage and sabotage threats against Australia were increasing at a “rate of knots.” Growing activity in the commerce and research sectors showed a “rapacious” appetite for intelligence on Australia’s trade relationships and export sector.


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