Back to top

Counter Espionage

What is espionage and foreign interference? What is a malicious insider?

Espionage is the theft of Australian information by someone either acting on behalf of a foreign power, or intending to provide information to a foreign power which is seeking advantage. Espionage can target defence, political, industrial, foreign relations, commercial or other information that is usually otherwise unavailable to the foreign power. Espionage is a crime in Australia, punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment.

Malicious insiders are those who have privileged access to information, technology, assets or premises of significance to Australia’s security or national interests, and who deliberately exploit their access in ways that compromise national interests. They may do this secretly to assist a foreign power, or they may release information publicly, potentially damaging Australia’s defence, trade, security or other interests. The potential for malicious insiders to do harm has been aggravated by technologies allowing the bulk transfer and dissemination of electronically stored information.

The espionage and foreign interference threat environment—looking back

ASIO’s origins lie in the global espionage struggle between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When ASIO was established in 1949, we learned through the interception of Soviet communications that an espionage ring was active in Australia. Our later success in securing the 1954 defection of Soviet diplomat and KGB officer Vladimir Petrov put the issue into the public arena. Petrov’s testimony confirmed much of what ASIO had already discovered during five years of painstaking investigation.

For the next three decades, most of ASIO’s work focused on countering the threat of espionage and foreign interference directed against Australia by the Soviet Union and its allies. These foreign intelligence services were tasked with clandestinely cultivating and recruiting Australians in all walks of life to:

  • help the Soviet Union obtain classified information about Australia’s military capabilities, economy, government policy deliberations, technology, and trade negotiations;
  • exert influence on governments to develop policies or make decisions that were sympathetic to the Soviet Union;
  • operate ‘front organisations’ intended to influence public debate, business decisions, and governments to support Soviet policies or undermine United States and Western policies; and
  • monitor and intervene in the activities of dissidents in the expatriate communities of Communist bloc states.

As is the case today, much of this activity occurred behind the scenes and only occasionally became public knowledge due to a crisis, a defection, or a major international incident.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s brought an end to the bipolar nature of international espionage, but the use of espionage and foreign interference techniques continued unabated as instruments of state power.

The current espionage and foreign interference threat environment

Espionage and foreign interference targeting Australian interests remains pervasive and enduring. ASIO has observed increased targeting of Australian interests in Australia and abroad through a variety of methods against an array of sectors.

Australia is a target of hostile foreign intelligence services as a result of:

  • strategic alliances and the defence relationship we share with other countries;
  • a desire to gain privileged insights into our strategic interests and positions on international diplomatic, economic and military issues;
  • a desire to gain commercial advantage over Australia, on matters including our energy and mineral resources;
  • a desire to gain access to our innovations in science and technology;
  • a desire to shape the actions of Australian decision-makers and public opinion in favour of the adversary; and
  • the reach of online technologies enabling hostile cyber activities.

A range of countries continue to conduct espionage against Australia’s vital national interests.

The range, scale and sophistication of foreign powers engaged in hostile cyber espionage activity against Australian Government and private sector systems continues to increase, as does the threat from malicious insiders. An increasing number of countries are pursuing a cyber espionage program as this offers high returns for relatively low cost and plausible deniability. The continued evolution of technology increases the sophistication and complexity of attacks, while also becoming increasingly accessible.

The harm caused by hostile intelligence activity can undermine Australia’s national security and sovereignty. It can damage Australia’s international reputation and degrade our diplomatic and trade relations. Both espionage and foreign interference can inflict economic damage, degrade or compromise nationally vital assets and critical infrastructure, and threaten the safety of Australians. One of the most insidious features of both espionage and foreign interference is that even a small level of activity can have severe consequences which take years to be realised.

What ASIO does to counter espionage, foreign interference and malicious insiders

Understanding and degrading the espionage and foreign interference activities of our adversaries is among the most challenging types of intelligence work. Undetected espionage activity can have long-term implications, undermining our society and way of life and our independent sovereignty. ASIO works with all government agencies and the private sector to increase awareness of the threat and to implement effective mitigation strategies. ASIO also actively works across government to prevent malicious insiders.

We focus on two key areas:

  • We discover espionage, foreign interference and the activities of ‘malicious insiders’ and degrade their impacts.
  • Our advice improves the effectiveness of Australian Government defences against clandestine espionage, foreign interference and malicious insiders.

Understandably, our work to counter espionage, foreign interference and malicious insiders occurs in secret. Working alone and with partners, ASIO has detected and degraded significant espionage and foreign interference activity in Australia and overseas. We identified and reported on the targeting priorities of hostile foreign intelligence services, and discovered targeted efforts to access sensitive or classified Australian Government information. We anticipate these hostile activities will continue and are likely to increase in scale.

Does ASIO collect foreign intelligence?

Foreign intelligence relates to the capabilities, intentions or activities of people and organisations offshore. It can relate to threats against Australia’s security, but extends into broader political, economic, and diplomatic matters. Australia’s dedicated foreign intelligence collection agencies are the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO).

ASIO collects foreign intelligence in Australia under warrant authorised by the Attorney-General, and incidentally through ‘human sources’. ASIO was given the responsibility for foreign intelligence collection under warrant as a result of the 1986 Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies because ‘ASIO is the only service which has been given special statutory powers to collect intelligence within Australia, with the warrant of the Attorney-General, in ways which, without such a warrant, would involve a breach of Australian law.’

The details of our foreign intelligence collection activities are highly sensitive, so we do not discuss them publicly. We provide niche foreign intelligence collection services to partners, in line with Australia’s National Intelligence Priorities.