A woman attends the Stop Watching Us rally in Washington, DC. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Australia’s electronic spy agency is using the nation’s embassies to intercept phone calls and internet data in neighbouring countries, according to new information disclosed by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden and a former Australian intelligence officer.
The secret Defence Signals Directorate operates clandestine surveillance facilities at embassies without the knowledge of most Australian diplomats.
A woman speaks at the Stop Watching Us rally in Washington, DC. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Fairfax Media has been told that signals intelligence collection occurs from Australian embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Beijing and Dili, the high commissions in Kuala Lumpur and Port Moresby and other diplomatic posts.
A secret US National Security Agency document leaked by Mr Snowden and published by Germany’s Der Speigel magazine reveals a highly sensitive signals intelligence collection program conducted from US embassies and consulates and from the diplomatic missions of other “Five Eyes” intelligence partners, including Australia, Britain and Canada.
Codenamed STATEROOM, the collection program involves interception of radio, telecommunications and internet traffic.
Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Photo: Reuters
The document says the DSD operates STATEROOM facilities at Australian diplomatic posts. It says the surveillance facilities are “small in size and in number of personnel staffing them”.
“They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned,” it says.
The document says the DSD facilities are carefully concealed. “For example, antennas are sometimes hidden in false architectural features or roof maintenance sheds.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined to comment on the potential diplomatic implications of the disclosure. A spokesperson said: “It is the long-standing practice of Australian governments not to comment on intelligence matters.”
The leaked NSA document does not identify the location of the DSD facilities overseas. However, a former Australian defence intelligence officer told Fairfax Media that the directorate conducted surveillance from Australian embassies across Asia and the Pacific.
In June, the East Timorese government complained publicly about Australian spying, including communications interception and the bugging of government offices during negotiations on the Timor Gap oil and gas reserves.
The former intelligence officer said the interception facility at the Australian embassy in Jakarta played an important role in collecting intelligence on terrorist threats and people smuggling, “but the main focus is political, diplomatic and economic intelligence”.
“The huge growth of mobile phone networks has been a great boon and Jakarta’s political elite are a loquacious bunch. Even when they think their own intelligence services are listening they just keep talking,” he said.
He said the Australian consulate in Denpasar, Bali, had also been used for intelligence collection.
Intelligence expert Des Ball said the DSD had long co-operated with the US in monitoring the Asia-Pacific region, including using listening posts in Australian embassies and consulates.
“Knowing what our neighbours are really thinking is important for all sorts of diplomatic and trade negotiations,” Professor Ball told Fairfax Media.
“It’s also necessary to map the whole of the telecommunications infrastructure in any area where we might one day have to conduct military operations so that we can make most use of our cyber warfare capabilities, however remote those contingencies might be, because you can’t get that knowledge and build those capabilities once a conflict starts.”
Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has demanded an explanation of news that the US embassy in Jakarta has been used to tap the phones of Indonesian officials.
“Indonesia cannot accept and strongly protests the news about the existence of tapping facilities at the US embassy in Jakarta,” Mr Natalegawa said.
”We have spoken to the US embassy representative in Jakarta demanding an official explanation from the US government about the news. If it’s confirmed, then it’s not only a breach of security, but a serious breach of diplomatic norms and ethics, and of course it’s not in line with the spirit of having a good relationship between the two countries.”