Agencies hack foreign states. Xi’s Pakistan deal. Kudos for NZ Anzacs. By Hamish McDonald.

British intel expert joins Abbott review

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain this week.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain this week.

While not flinching from giving his advice to Europe on how to “stop the boats” crossing the Mediterranean with sometimes tragic outcomes − that is, adopting the Australian formula so delicately summed up by a Murdoch tabloid columnist as “balls of steel, can-do brains, tiny hearts and whacking great gunships” − Tony Abbott still heads to the mother country for key advice.

Earlier this month his department quietly announced the appointment of Sir Iain Lobban, the recently replaced director of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, to an “independent panel of experts” advising Canberra’s review of Australian cybersecurity, due to report by midyear. As we reported earlier, Lobban stepped down in the wake of Edward Snowden’s embarrassing disclosures about GCHQ’s “Tempora” operation to collect metadata from the internet by tapping into optical-fibre trunk cables and other surveillance programs. His counterpart and deputy at the US National Security Agency (NSA) also got the heave-ho.

Alongside some business and private-sector IT figures, Canberra’s independent panel also includes a local source of expertise: Telstra’s chief information security officer, Mike Burgess, who was deputy director of cybersecurity at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) until two years ago. Burgess would presumably have been up to date with everything at GCHQ, as the two outfits have been close partners since World War II, but having a knighted British spook on the team adds tone and undoubtedly broadens the picture.

While in Canberra, Lobban might be available, if anyone is interested, to give his thoughts on the new metadata law Attorney-General George Brandis has just put through with Labor Party support. It includes touching safeguards against pursuit of whistleblowing sources for investigative journalists, through appointment of “public interest advocates” to argue the case against applications to judges or magistrates for warrants to search journalists’ metadata. All this in secret, of course, without the journalist being told, enforced by jail terms for disclosure.

Lobban has insisted in parliamentary hearings and interviews that GCHQ has used metadata to find the needle in the haystack pointing to terrorism plots and other crimes. “I don’t look at the hay,” he says. But the British have nothing like the onerous penalties for non-government personnel disclosing searches that Australia now has, and they seem reasonably happy with this.

The need for the new metadata retention law has been explained as coming from new methods of billing telephone and internet customers by service providers, by measuring pulses and data transfer volumes instead of itemised calls and connections. So in a way it’s more of the same, and the number of agencies able to obtain call records, which previously included local councils and even the RSPCA, has been cut from 85 to 20. But why add the new Star Chamber elements?

1 . Agencies hack foreign states  

In the field of cybersecurity, it helps to know the opponent’s methods. So the electronic intelligence agencies such as the ASD, GCHQ and NSA are active intruders into foreign networks and also busily developing the armouries for actual cyber attack to wreak havoc in those systems if required.

As Burgess put it in a speech to veteran RAAF electronic spooks just before stepping down from what was then called the Defence Signals Directorate: “In the cyber safari, DSD is the poacher and the gamekeeper – hence our mission statement of ‘reveal their secrets, protect our own’.”

Most offensive cyber activity in the world is just hacking, either for fun or to obtain information for profit. Burgess said 65 per cent of intrusions in Australia were for stealing money, with an estimated $4.5 billion a year being reaped, and the ASD advises the private sector on ways to protect their systems. Lobban told Charles Moore in London’s Daily Telegraph this is also part of GCHQ’s remit: “We moved from steepling our fingers and giving arcane technical advice to telling businesses, ‘You’re being robbed blind’, and showing them how to protect themselves.”

Actual cyber attack is rare. The first was by the NSA against Belgrade in 1999, says an expert in the field, Greg Austin, author of a new book, Cyber Policy in China. Now everyone is developing the capability, including the Chinese, who showed their hand with a crude satellite shoot-down in 2007. China has since shown some impressive capabilities, now having the world’s fastest supercomputer and having carried out in 2012 an experiment called the teleportation of quantum properties between remote particles, something Austin assures us will transform computing.

But he doubts China has the intellectual and philosophical framework under its existing political system to move decisively ahead as an “information society”. In cyberwarfare capability it is “unlikely to make an appreciable dint in the margin of superiority of the US global alliance,” Austin told the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney this week, adding that American sources have told him: “Chinese cyber espionage is good, but we are very much better at it.”

When it comes to counterterrorism, Lobban has an intriguing take. As paraphrased by his interviewer Moore, to get inside the opposition’s mind “you must mirror what you are dealing with. In the Cold War, GCHQ mirrored the Soviet security structures. In the age of the internet, they must swim as freely as possible in its democratic soup.” Let’s see how Lobban handles the soup in Canberra.

2 . Xi’s Pakistan deal

Money talks and on Monday and Tuesday China’s leader Xi Jinping was in Pakistan handing out buckets of the stuff, signing agreements to provide $US28 billion for new electricity plants, pipelines, roads and railways, with another $US18 billion to follow.

In addition, China has agreed to sell Pakistan eight new conventional submarines for a bargain $US6 billion, a thumb on the nose to India’s closer strategic ties to the US. The overall aim is to open up land and sea linkages from China to the Middle East and Central Asia.

Some see it as the boost that might finally let Pakistan realise its potential as an economic power. But geo-strategists will reflect that it depends on co-operation from the one player that has traditionally prevented Euro-Asian land powers from obtaining access to the Indian Ocean: Afghanistan. Many of the citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan itself have doubts about allying with the oriental atheists. Xi and Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, have agreed to set up a joint security force to protect the new investments, hardly a sign of confidence.

3 . Kudos for NZ Anzacs

Good to see that the New Zealanders are getting some attention here in the Anzac centenary celebrations.

As well as suffering the worst casualties proportionate to their numbers, the New Zealanders included some dashing figures. Among them was former champion swimmer and eventual governor-general Bernard Freyberg, who swam naked for three kilometres along the Gallipoli shore during the landings, setting off flares at intervals to distract the Turks.

The readiness of Australia’s foreign policy and defence establishment to accept New Zealand’s virtual expulsion from the ANZUS Treaty in 1985 after its government banned the entry of ships and aircraft that might be carrying nuclear weapons was a sad sight. Even after US president George H. W. Bush removed tactical nuclear weapons from US Navy ships in 1991, the freeze continued.

Your columnist, when invited to attend of a session of the Australia–US Leadership Dialogue in the late 1990s, recalls one forlorn attempt by member Sam Lipski to question Richard Armitage, later George W. Bush’s first deputy secretary of state, whether this exclusion was still necessary. Armitage said it was. End of argument. Gradually New Zealand’s contributions to peacekeeping and its focus on what it does best militarily got appreciation. But it was not formally welcomed back as an ally until 2010, by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton on a visit to Wellington.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 25, 2015 as "British intel expert joins Abbott review".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.