‘May the best spy win’: Australia’s intelligence chiefs open up on cyber threats – and feminism – The Guardian

ASD boss says cyber environment has become ‘messy’ since Ukraine conflict and laments ‘concrete block’ for women
Two of the country’s top spy bosses have offered a rare insight into the escalating threat from cyber-attacks, and Australia’s defensive and offensive responses.
“All’s fair in love and war and espionage,” said Rachel Noble, the director general of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), when asked if it was hypocritical for the west to call out cyber-attacks from other countries, when it is carrying out its own.
“Of course we spy on other countries,” she said during an appearance at the Lowy Institute. “May the best spy win.
“I do think that in a democracy, we are more transparent about what we do.”
ASD, an electronic intelligence agency tasked with collecting intelligence about foreign adversaries, cybersecurity, protecting Australians from cyberwarfare and carrying out its own offensive cyber operations, is held to account through parliamentary processes and committees and by the inspector general of intelligence and security, Noble said.
“Those are not mechanisms that other countries, who might be communist in nature, have to hold their intelligence apparatus to account.”
Abigail Bradshaw, the head of the ASD’s Australian Cyber Security Centre, said cyber-attacks were increasingly common, sophisticated and agile.
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Bradshaw pointed to recent reports about a Chinese-backed cyber espionage campaign that targeted Australian government agencies by posing as an Australian news site. A group known as TA423/Red Ladon had embedded malicious software in the site, and was using it to hack Australian entities.
The centre had been aware of that campaign since April, she said, and had thrown up a cyber shield around at-risk networks.
“Without telling you how we knew about that … one of the virtues of having your cybersecurity agency integrated with a foreign intelligence agency is we do have early visibility of campaigns like that,” she said.
“Given the targeting of government entities, we used our central blocking capability to block government networks from accessing that site.”
Since 2018, ASD has had the power to actively disrupt foreign cyber-attacks, she said, while declining to reveal details.
Noble said that the conflict in Ukraine crystallised how major cyber-attacks went from almost “hypothetical” to playing out in real life.
And it got “really messy” for ASD and other agencies because large private sector companies, and organised cybercriminals, joined in and took sides.
“It can be very difficult to discern whether it’s a state-based actor, a criminal, a criminal operating at the direction of the state, or just deriving their own intent from that state actor and then undertaking offensive action,” she said.
“It’s really messy.”
She said it was inspiring and terrifying to watch her global intelligence counterparts at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where they were predicting president Vladimir Putin’s action almost in real time.
Both Noble and Bradshaw said protecting Australian cyberspace started with individuals using good “cyber hygiene” – there are details here on how to achieve that.
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Noble, the first woman to head up an Australian intelligence agency, said she didn’t think there was a glass ceiling for women in the workplace.
“It’s actually a concrete block,” she said.
Noble said even today that concrete block is “coated in advanced cloaking technology”.
“I couldn’t see it until I got senior enough to reach out and touch it,” she said, in a speech in which she described the “micro-humiliations” she experienced “in a world dominated by men”.
A former codebreaker who only recently became a feminist, Noble said she was trying not to sound “shrill, or even worse, bitter”, as she traced through the history of women in Australian intelligence to today, when women are still unintentionally belittled, called a “witch”, or “bossy”, or “scary”.
And she called for men to get equal access to parental leave.
“For so long, as the woman has more, the family economics of who take that leave becomes pretty simple,” she said.
“But as importantly we need to work to change our … values and expectations to allow him to take it.”
Taking time off work after having children contributes to the 13.8% pay gap between men and women and “a whopping 24.4% pay gap in professional, scientific and technical services”, Noble noted, as she quoted women including pop star Madonna, ABC writer and commentator Annabel Crabb and former prime minister Julia Gillard.
She said almost half of ASD’s executive are women. The agency has its regular morning meeting at 9.30am, to allow for school dropoffs, and they don’t schedule meetings outside business hours unless urgent.
Noble finished with a quote from Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein:
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”


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