ASIO working to prevent foreign spies from stealing Australian coronavirus vaccine research


ASIO working to prevent foreign spies from stealing Australian coronavirus vaccine research

Scientists searching for a COVID-19 vaccine have received assistance from an unlikely source — Australia’s top spies.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has been working with medical institutions and scientific organisations to ensure their highly sought-after research is not stolen.

The threat comes at a time when the nation’s defence and space sectors are already being targeted, and there are more foreign spies in Australia than ever before.

Medical research under attack

Intelligence agencies say there has been a noticeable increase in attempts by other countries to steal medical information relating to coronavirus.

Australia recently called out Russia after the United States, United Kingdom and Canada declared Russian hackers had targeted organisations involved in developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

In July, the United States Justice Department accused the Chinese Government of hacking firms developing vaccines.

The Australian Cyber Security Centre has publicly stated it has been working to prevent cyber-attacks related to COVID-19.

In an exclusive interview with the ABC, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess confirmed some of his officers were also assisting.

“There is great interest in medical breakthroughs … sometimes it can be done through covert means [and] that is on the rise,” he said.

“We are very much attuned to that and we and others in the community have been active in helping the research institutions understand that’s possible.

“Where we see things happening, together we are helping them deal with it.”

Aside from talking to medical institutions and scientific organisations about the threat, Mr Burgess confirmed ASIO has carried out some “operational activity” but refused to provide details.

Spying and threats during a pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way organisations across the world operate and Mr Burgess says ASIO is no different.

“We have managed to maintain a hold on priority targets but we have had to go back to some old fashioned tradecraft,” he said.

Mr Burgess said ASIO officers had to change how they communicated and met up with people.

“We have gone back to old tradecraft — including perhaps not [leaving messages] under a rock — but how we might leave a message for one of our sources, it’s gone back to the old-fashioned way, not technology.”

He said spies and terrorists had used COVID-19 to their advantage, with extremist ideology spreading quickly because more people were online.

Traditionally, major gatherings have been a target for terrorists.

But most large events have been cancelled and shopping centre crowds are much smaller due to coronavirus restrictions.

Despite that, Mr Burgess said the threat was still real.

“The most likely attack in this country is car-borne or a knife attack,” he said.

“Maybe shopping centres aren’t busy but sadly hospitals are — so people who chose to do those things have other ways to cause harm.”

Threat to defence and space sectors continues

Before the coronavirus pandemic, other nations had already been trying to get their hands on information about Australia’s expanding military defence capabilities.

Mr Burgess said that threat had not gone away during the pandemic and he was “deeply concerned” Australia’s efforts to build new defence equipment and technology was an “attractive target” for foreign governments and spies.

The ABC recently revealed Defence had raised concerns foreign spies posed an extreme threat to Australia’s shipbuilding plan.

The situation is reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the Russians collected information about the Woomera missile project.

Mr Burgess said the level of foreign interest in Australia’s defence sector now was the same as “at the height of the Cold War”.

He also said high-tech industries such as the space sector were targets.

“Some countries have a rapacious appetite for intellectual property, they will go via covert means to steal that,” he said.

“That is very much a problem and one we are focused on.”

Who is targeting Australia?

Behind closed doors, members of the intelligence community have named Russia and China as countries of concern when it comes to foreign interference.

But Mr Burgess refused to say who was on ASIO’s watchlist.

“There are many countries involved in espionage and I worry about more than two,” he said.

But he did confirm ASIO was watching its allies.

“In the spying game, yes, sometimes you are both friends and sometimes we catch some of our friends out,” Mr Burgess said.

With more spies in Australia now than ever before, Mr Burgess said the disguises many assumed allowed them to blend into the community.

“They might be here as a tradesman, a businessperson, even a journalist perhaps, a whole range of professions,” he said.

“They are living their lives normally, but they also have another task that they don’t declare.”

First published on ABC News.

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