In the face of new challenges and technology, increased transparency from intelligence services is necessary to maintain public trust.

In the intelligence business, the secret of success lies in keeping one’s successes secret. After all, were a target or adversary to become aware of one’s ability to eavesdrop, they would be expected to alter their practices, making it that much harder to replicate the success that led to the boasting in the first place.

Notwithstanding this truism, there is a place for a judicious but honest account of the place of intelligence in our lives and in our society. This is one of the key themes of my new book, co-authored with Clare Birgin, Revealing secrets, which explores the history of signals intelligence, or Sigint, in Australia as well as its future. In our book, we argue that this increased transparency is increasingly vital in the 21st century – especially as the ability of states to monitor each other as well as their citizens becomes increasingly powerful.

The Enigma machine, which was used by Nazi Germany to encipher secret messages during the Second World War. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2007-0705-502/Walther/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Sigint, or signals intelligence, is the most secret branch of intelligence. At its heart, it involves the interception and decoding of signals from other actors. Today it also includes offensive and defensive cyber action. This work has strong roots in the Second World War; for example, working with the United Kingdom to help break enemy codes. Not only was the technology and techniques developed during the war vital to the Allies’ eventual victory, it also laid the foundation of modern day Sigint operations – including the use of computers for signals intelligence and the eventual advent of cyber.

Sigint has influenced Australia’s history and people, largely without most of us knowing it or fully understanding it, but it has left an imprint on us all. Traditionally, intelligence – and Sigint, in particular – has been shrouded in secrecy.

In recent years, in the interests of transparency and accountability, leaders and heads of intelligence agencies in democratic countries, notably the United Kingdom and, to a certain extent, in Australia and elsewhere, have lifted the veil judiciously to reveal the purposes of some of these agencies and some of their work. This is to their credit, but to reveal only a part of an enterprise can be misleading.

At the same time, the democratisation of intelligence and demands for greater accountability have made the task of Sigint more challenging. In the early days, Sigint was authorised as a ministerial directive; since then, there has been growth in public awareness, thanks in part to reviews and royal commissions, and the proliferation of legislation on how and why Sigint and other forms of intelligence can be collected, analysed and reported. These reviews and laws have led to a degree of public exposure likely to make the traditional introspective intelligence practitioner uncomfortable.

One of the Australian Signals Directorate’s listening stations, the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station in Western Australia. Photo: Mglew/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since the Snowden revelations of the second decade of this century, Sigint has faced far more exposure. More secrets have been revealed. The increase in great power contestation has called into question the hitherto remarkably successful arrangement of intelligence ‘ties that bind’ Australia with the United States and the other partners, like the United Kingdom and these two nations’ allies.

Revelations, particularly from abroad, of intelligence overreach, are now common knowledge in Australia. Governments stand or fall on voters’ trust in them. If they lose that trust, they lose office. Some details of course must remain hidden, as it would be unsafe or inappropriate to divulge them. Nonetheless, with heightened competition over narratives and a surge in misinformation, greater effort is required to ensure that the Australian people are given the clearest and fullest possible explanation of the rationale and workings of the Sigint and cyber enterprise.

The information revolution has also increased the demand for transparency and accountability. Controversies over leaks, incompetence and malpractice feed conspiracy theories, undermining the authority of intelligence organisations and public confidence in them. A no-comment, or refusal to confirm or deny, let alone engage in a meaningful way, can be as damaging as a leak.

Australia’s national Sigint agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, is already adjusting to these new dynamics with the expansion of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC). With its branch offices in state capital cities, the ACSC is engaging members of the Australian community to a degree unimaginable in the days of the Cold War.

Indeed, cyber is taking on a life of its own. With its origins in Sigint, cyber is digitally and not analogue based. Indications are that, in future, the scope and influence of cyber will eclipse the traditional Sigint functions. Understanding how cyber was born from Sigint will inform judgements we make about the future.

Many challenges of today are about a future which cannot be predicted with certainty. Who could have foreseen that in 2022 Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service would change Ukraine’s war with Russia, not only keeping Ukrainians online, but helping troops to communicate on the battlefield and enabling drones and weapons systems to stay operational.

Today, Australia’s Sigint faces new challenges presented by cyberspace and greater public scrutiny than ever. This is causing public concern – hence the need for Australia’s Sigint and cyber security functions to be better understood by the people they are intended to protect.

With so much at stake in protecting our own, reliable and timely intelligence to support decision-making will be more important than ever. That means that apart from being more engaged with society than ever before, particularly on cyber issues, the nation’s Sigint enterprise will need to continue being effective at revealing secrets.

After all, as the traitor unmasked at the end of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy declares, “secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious”.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at The Australian National University. His co-authored book with Clare Birgin, Revealing secrets: an unofficial history of Australian Signals intelligence and the advent of cyber, is available from UNSW Press.

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