What is espionage and foreign interference?
Foreign interference refers to instances where foreign influence is exerted in a covert, deceptive and often malicious way. The aim of this activity may be to influence an important Australian political decision which affects a foreign power, or to encourage other outcomes which benefit the relevant foreign power to the detriment of Australia’s national security and interests.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) defines espionage affecting Australia as “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. This serious crime which is punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment, is often enabled by malicious insiders.
What is a malicious insider?
On its website, the ASIO defines malicious insiders as “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.”
Information may be provided secretly to foreign powers, or may be publicly released with the intention of causing harm to Australia.
What are the main espionage and foreign interference threats to Australia?
Australia may be the target of espionage and foreign interference conducted both within Australia and from abroad. ASIO has observed increased targeting of Australian interests in recent years, and posits that 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
The rapid evolution of technology provides increasing opportunities for malicious foreign actors to target Australia, reaping significant benefits at a relatively low cost, while using technology to help evade detection.
How does ASIO counter these threats?
ASIO works with all government agencies as well as the private sector to discover espionage and foreign interference activity, identify malicious insiders, and implement effective mitigation strategies.
ASIO also works with international partners and collects foreign intelligence, and is the only Australian agency which has been given special statutory powers to collect such intelligence with the warrant of the Attorney-General.