ASIO, the nation’s chief spy agency, has warned of the increased damage malicious insiders could do to Australia’s security as a result of rapid advances in information technology.
A similar release of the case files of Islamic jihad sympathisers, for example, would have a devastating effect on Australia’s security operations, ASIO said.
Its warnings on the issue were blunt.
ASIO’s annual report, recently submitted to Parliament, stated that a major threat to the country’s national interest was “the risk posed by self-motivated individuals who exploit their privileged access to information to make unauthorised disclosures of classified or privileged information”.
“The harm these individuals can cause has been greatly increased by modern information technology, which allows large amounts of information to be aggregated and copied, as well as distributed easily to a wide audience,” the report read.
ASIO says it has significantly increased its engagement with the broader Australian Government, both at executive levels and with agency security advisers, to raise awareness of the malicious insider threat.
The report states: “Malicious insiders are trusted employees and contractors who deliberately and wilfully breach their duty to maintain the security of privileged information, techniques, technology, assets or premises.
“ASIO has identified vulnerabilities and significant weaknesses associated with current Australian personnel security arrangements, in terms of both the current practice and the ability to respond effectively to emerging issues.
“This creates an unacceptable level of risk for government. As a result of these vulnerabilities, the secure conduct of government business cannot be assured.”
Terrorism expert Professor Clive Williams of the Australian National University said Manning and Snowden may not be Australian, but they were very damaging cases on everyone’s mind within the intelligence community.
“They have had a significant impact on our intelligence and security operations because of the way we are interconnected with the US and the other members of Five Eyes.”
The Five Eyes refers to an intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Professor Williams said there was now more emphasis on the role of managers in the security management of staff under their control.
“Despite the security vetting process, which is hugely backlogged, the reality is that most security problems come from vetted insiders who for various reasons have become disenchanted or disaffected, often mid-career,” he said.
“Managers are now expected to know all about their staff and their problems. Security access reviews should be conducted periodically, but the reality is that most agencies struggle to do the reviews on time.”
Dr Daniel Baldino, editor of Spooked: The Truth About Intelligence in Australia, said the operations of WikiLeaks in particular had emphasised the ongoing security headache of insider knowledge – a digital age problem linked to poorly trained or disgruntled insiders, contractors or ex-employees.
“Agencies want no more repeats of Manning or Snowden. This has led to questions about internal security procedures, levels of access and the potential for future security lapses,” he said.
“In some contexts, agencies will need to re-think about genuine pathways and confidential mechanisms to best deal with an internal reports by a disgruntled employee.”
John Stapleton has worked as a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. His most recent book, Terror in Australia: Workers’ Paradise Lost is available on Amazon Kindle and will be available in paperback later in the year.