Australia’s spy agency has opened up about its offensive cyber warfare capabilities as part of an effort to recruit “many hundreds of people” in the coming years.
In a speech to the Lowy Institute on Wednesday, Australian Signals Directorate director-general Mike Burgess continued the agency’s recent transparency push by detailing cases of the use of offensive cyber capabilities and encouraged individuals to look into joining the team.
“Transparency informs, helping dispel myths and most importantly helps with our value proposition to prospective employees. While today’s talk might be attractive because of the topic I have chosen to talk about, my prime objective is selling ASD as a rewarding place to work,” Mr Burgess said.
“If you would like a licence to hack legally, can keep a secret and want to make a difference, then ASD might have a job for you. There’s something for anyone who is curious-minded and up for a challenge. Over the next few years, we will be recruiting many hundreds of people to be part of our cyber workforce.”
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 revealed the government had directed the ASD to use its offensive cyber capabilities to “disrupt, degrade, deny and deter organised offshore cyber criminals”, following the first public acknowledgement of the capability in 2016. But little information has since been provided about what these offensive cyber capabilities actually are and how they are being used.
But now the ASD is opening up some of its operations to the public.
To outline the work that the ASD does in terms of offensive cyber, the agency declassified information about two major operations, including during the fight against ISIS in the Middle East when operators successfully took down the terrorist group’s communications.
“Just as the Coalition forces were preparing to attack the terrorists’ position, our offensive cyber operators were at their keyboards in Australia firing highly targeted bits and bytes into cyberspace,” Mr Burgess said.
“Daesh communications were degraded within seconds. Terrorist commanders couldn’t connect to the internet and were unable to communicate with each other. The terrorists were in disarray and driven from their position – in part because of the young men and women at their keyboards some 11,000km or so from the battle.”
The successful operation marked a “milestone” for Australia and its Coalition partners.
“It was the first time that an offensive cyber operation had been conducted so closely synchronised with the movements of military personnel in theatre. And it was highly successful. Without reliable communications, the enemy had no means to organise themselves. And the Coalition forces regained the territory,” he said.
Mr Burgess also outlined how ASD “covert online operators” assume false identities online to disrupt terrorist networks, including an example where a young female operator contacted a man that had been radicalised, pretending to be a senior terrorist.
“Pretending to be a terrorist commander, our lead operator used a series of online conversations to gradually win her target’s trust…to ensure he couldn’t be contacted by the real terrorists, she got him to change his modes and methods of communication,” he said.
“Eventually, she convinced the aspiring terrorist to abandon his plan for jihad and move to another country where our partner agencies could ensure he was no longer a danger to others or himself. In this case, a young operative sitting at a computer in Canberra successfully pretending to be a senior terrorist fighting in a far away zone.”
As part of the “live job advertisement” the spy chief was at pains to emphasise that all the cyber offensive work conducted by the ASD is within the bounds of the law.
“Every mission must be targeted and proportionate, and is subject to rigorous oversight. All our actions are deeply considered, and subject to meticulous planning to consider the potential for unintended consequences,” Mr Burgess said.
He also looked to dispel the myth of these people being like the “cavalier hackers” featured in movies.
“The real hackers in ASD couldn’t be further from this stereotype. Our operators and planners are imaginative and disciplined, with a strong sense of propriety. They are cool under pressure – and they love working as part of a team. It’s as far away as you can get from the cliche in the movies,” Mr Burgess said.
“They come from all sorts of backgrounds – everything from computer science to marketing, international relations, the law, linguistics, biology and mathematics to name a few.”
The ASD’s offensive cyber operators are also backed by teams of network engineers, system administrators and security professionals, with the agency also looking to recruit in these groups.
The focus on communicating to the public what the spy agency actually does is part of an active effort to improve recruitment and diversity in the team, Mr Burgess said.
“In the past it was difficult to recruit people with the aptitude for this work. If you are living in the shadows, you can’t exactly put ‘covert online operator’ on your LinkedIn profile. We suspect a lot of people wrongly concluded that our offensive cyber mission was just for techies. Or even worse, that we were looking for those cavalier hackers in the movies,” he said.
“By being more transparent about what the work really involves we hope that a wider range of people might consider a career in ASD’s offensive cyber mission.”