Spooks’ Top Secret cloud to share ‘vast amounts of data’

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Top Secret cloud being built for Australia’s intelligence agencies will put a premium on sharing “vast amounts of data” and providing access to counterparts in the US and UK, according to Australia’s top intelligence advisor, who this week gave a rare update on the project.

Head of the Office of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer told a US intelligence community audience that the agency is working “very hard” on the cloud project and hopes “to take that initiative forward”.

The rare update confirms the project that began in 2020 is moving ahead despite a breakdown with favoured supplier Microsoft last year, and reveals international data sharing is now a sharper focus.

Office of National Intelligence director-general Andrew Shearer. Image:ONI

The ONI in late 2020 went to market for cloud providers that could deliver and sustain “secure, scalable and private community cloud systems (potentially including edge computing), at the Top Secret security classification”.

The Top Secret cloud will be used by the ONI and Australia’s other national intelligence community, including spy and defence intelligence agencies, but may also be expanded to non-intelligence agencies and lower level data.

The need for a cloud that could handle the nation’s most sensitive intelligence data and share it with several agencies was part of a push for the intelligence community to work more collaboratively through an interoperable ICT environment.

This was recommended by the Independent Intelligence Review in 2017 that also created the ONI.

The ONI proceeded with its approach to market in 2021 and the breadth of capability it was asking for – bespoke and off the shell data processing, including artificial intelligence, and storage that was interoperable with systems in several agencies – meant a massive contract loomed for suppliers from a likely multi-billion dollar project.

Microsoft was understood to have been the frontrunner for the ONI’s Top Secret Cloud but sensationally walked away from the deal in 2022, angering top officials at Defence and within the intelligence establishment.

The ONI has never publicly acknowledged the breakdown and has provided almost no updates on the Top Secret cloud project since.

But this week the agency’s director-general and the Prime Minister’s principle intelligence advisor confirmed work has continued and he expects the cloud to usher in fundamental changes for the intelligence community.

“What that [cloud] will do is obviously transform how we do our work as agencies but also it will open up a shared collaborative space that will really reinforce this sense of working together as a genuine community and bringing all those different capabilities to bear on problems,” Mr Shearer said during an address to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the US.

“The ability to share vast amounts of data and to work on it together will be a massive change for us as a community, but it will also make us interoperable with the US IC {Intelligence Community] and also with our British colleagues who are moving in that direction as well.

“As we thought about that project, we were designing in interoperability with our most important partners right from the start. And also, frankly, sharing from the experiences of the US and the UK who’d been down that path a little ahead of us, has helped.”

As work on ONI’s Top Secret cloud progresses, the Department of Defence also plans to stand up a Secret cloud, having approached the market for a infrastructure-as-a-service platform last year.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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