Australia Wants Computer Nerds To Help Spy on Communications

A view of Sydney through binoculars in 2005

Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images

Many employers are facing staff cutbacks amid the current bleak economic climate. But not Australia’s top surveillance agency—it’s recruiting a new batch of spooks while it seeks sweeping new powers to monitor communications.

Last week it was confirmed that the Aussie Attorney-General’s Department wants to give the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization, which is tasked with protecting the country from terrorism and espionage, powers to hack into personal computers and smartphones to plant spyware for the purposes of monitoring “suspected terrorists and other security interests.” (In the United States, the FBI already has these powers.)

Now, a series of job listings recently posted online reveal that ASIO is looking for technically minded people who can help develop new eavesdropping tools. For a salary of up to $94,830 AUSD ($100,000 USD), you could be a “Telecommunications Interception Specialist” or a “Technical Intelligence Specialist”—so long as you have a good working knowledge of how to best snoop on phone calls, emails, and Internet traffic data.

The vacancies, open only to Australian citizens, show that ASIO is looking to recruit experts with knowledge of voice over IP chat services (like Skype), which have historically been difficult for spy agencies to monitor. It also wants to find programming geeks with an interest in emerging technologies and Internet trends who have the technical skills to “enable the manipulation and interpretation of large data sets.” Notably, ASIO is currently advertising for an expert able to identify vulnerabilities in computer systems to help develop “techniques in support of intelligence collection activities.” Hacking into phones or laptops can require specialist understanding of how to infiltrate computers through so-called “zero-day” vulnerabilities in software programs that are unknown to the public and able to bypass anti-virus software or firewalls.

The push for hacking powers—and the search for geeks with hacker savvy—may not come as much of a surprise, given Australia’s recent attempts to upgrade its surveillance capabilities. Last year, the country followed the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom by introducing proposals for broad new surveillance powers that would allow it to gain access to communications sent over the Internet. I wrote at the time that a clause in the snooping plans appeared to be attempting to scrap an existing law that effectively prohibits the authorities from planting spyware or keyloggers on shared computers.

However, the controversial new powers are not likely to get implemented soon. (One Australian commentator has predicted that expecting them before 2014 would be optimistic.) The country’s attorney general is facing heavy opposition from civil liberties advocates who have campaigned vigorously against an expansion of spy efforts. The controversy has already led to the proposals being put on hold by the Australian government pending a parliamentary inquiry, set up to hear all sides in a debate that involves a contentious balance between national security and privacy. The inquiry is producing a lengthy report which is expected to be released at some point later this year.

Correction, Jan. 23: Due to an editing error, the menu line for this blog post originally stated that Australia’s Attorney-General’s Office seeks new surveillance powers and new technology. It is seeking new powers; the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization is seeking the new technology.