Australia’s highly secretive signals intelligence agency – tasked with eavesdropping and decrypting adversaries’ communications – has made a tongue-in-cheek Twitter debut, while issuing a serious warning of security risks from Chinese technology.
The Australian Signals Directorate, a sister agency to Britain’s GCHQ or America’s NSA, took to the social network as part of what they said was a new, more public-facing communications strategy.
‘Hi internet, ASD here. Long time listener, first time caller,’ @ASDGovAu tweeted for the first time.
Defence officials confirmed the tweet and account were authentic.
The debut tweet was followed by an image containing a visual text puzzle, or cryptogram, of the organisation’s acronym and excerpts from a speech by director general Mike Burgess.
In his talk, Burgess said ASD was coming ‘out of the shadows’ and stridently defended a government decision to bar Chinese telecoms firms Huawei and ZTE from operating Australia’s new 5G network.
The long-awaited 3.5 GHz system will allow lightning-fast speeds and could allow everyday objects to become intelligent, interconnected devices that feed pools of data – raising security concerns over who can access it.
The decision to ban Huawei and ZTE from running the technology has infuriated Beijing and sparked a PR battle over the trustworthiness of those firms.
Both operate with Chinese state backing but are among the biggest technology companies in the world.
Security concerns
Huawei, founded by a People’s Liberation Army researcher, and ZTE have been accused by the US Congress of being tools of the Chinese intelligence services.
‘5G is not just fast data,’ Burgess explained in his speech.
The technology ‘will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day, from our health systems and the potential applications of remote surgery, to self-driving cars and through to the operation of our power and water supply’.
After studying whether the network could be secured if there were any ‘high-risk’ vendors participating, Burgess indicated the ASD assessment was a firm ‘no’.
‘My advice was to exclude high-risk vendors from the entirety of evolving 5G networks,’ he said.
Reforms to Chinese intelligence and President Xi Jinping’s drive to expand China’s influence overseas have led to increasing friction and competition between intelligence agencies in Beijing and Canberra.
The independent Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Tuesday accused the Chinese military of sending 2,500 scientists and engineers overseas to work on potentially sensitive projects – with the intention of returning to work directly for the People’s Liberation Army.
Researcher Alex Joske found at least 300 Chinese military scientists came to Australia as PhD students or visiting scholars.
They worked in fields including signal processing, radar, explosions and navigation systems, as well as self-driving cars and code-breaking, he wrote.
Most PLA scientists do not disguise their background, but the institute said it identified ’24 new cases of scientists hiding their military affiliation while travelling outside China, including 17 who came to Australia’.
Australia is part of the ‘Five-eyes’ intelligence alliance with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, who cooperate closely and share sensitive information.