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Australian Signals Directorate spy chief Rachel Noble gives rare speech

Australia’s electronic spy agency says it needs to collect intelligence on Australians because not all Aussies are the ‘good guys’.

A debate surrounding the Australian Signals Directorate was triggered two years ago when News Corp newspapers published leaked information about coalition government ministers seeking to expand its powers to monitor Australians on home soil.

Key figures in the Australian intelligence community responded to the reports, saying there was ‘no proposal to increase the ASD’s powers to collect intelligence on Australians or to covertly access their private data’.

ASD boss Rachel Noble will use a rare speech on Tuesday to lay out why it can and does help other agencies in collecting intelligence on Australians

ASD boss Rachel Noble will use a rare speech on Tuesday to lay out why it can and does help other agencies in collecting intelligence on Australians

In an effort to clarify the role of her agency, ASD boss Rachel Noble will use a rare speech on Tuesday to lay out why it can and does help other agencies in collecting intelligence on Australians.

But Ms Noble is at pains to point out the ASD is a ‘foreign intelligence agency’, meaning it does not have broad domestic powers to spy on Australians.

‘Our ability to collect intelligence on Australians is not new because not all Australians are the good guys,’ she will tell the ANU’s National Security College.

She noted that an intervention by Labor senator John Faulkner in 2001 had led to ministerial authorisation being required of any intelligence collection, or other activities relating to Australian persons must be obtained.

‘These written authorisations must be in place for such collection or other activities to occur and cannot exceed six months duration unless renewed by the minister,’ she says.

But the activities must be connected to the ASD’s legislated functions, such as someone who is presenting a significant risk to a person’s safety, acting for a foreign power, threatening security, breaching a UN sanction, smuggling people or money, or illegally transferring intellectual property.

‘These are the rules by which ASD still operates today – 20 years later,’ she says.

Ms Noble says ASD staff are comprehensively trained in their obligations and responsibilities.

‘For more than 20 years ASD’s role in relation to intelligence collection against Australians has been laid bare on the face of legislation,’ she says.

‘And I’m sorry if this is news to you but not all Australians are the good guys.

‘Some Australians are agents of a foreign power.

‘Some Australians are terrorists. Some Australians take up weapons and point them at us and our military.

‘Some Australians are spies who are cultivated by foreign powers and are not on our side.’

She said when it came to intelligence collection and cyber offensive operations ‘ASD is a foreign intelligence agency’.

‘It is a matter for ASIO to concern itself with Australians who may pose a threat to our way of life,’ she says.

‘ASD cannot, under law, conduct mass surveillance on Australians.’

Touching on the issue of having more powers, Ms Noble said agencies ‘must and do have carefully considered conversations about how to manage contemporary threats, including whether the management of such threats might ultimately involve legislative change’.

‘And after doing so agencies will provide advice to government about their options.’

But it was the role of politicians, not public servants, to decide how best to address any new risks.

Dr Noble said the ASD’s core mission after 73 years of operations remained to give the government insight into foreign strategic and military developments, to protect the nation from cyber threats and to conduct cyber offensive operations.

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