IT Pro

Black vault for a deluge of secrets

Facility hints at Australia's involvement in data collection, writes Philip Dorling.

The Australian government has been building a state-of-the art, secret data storage facility just outside Canberra to enable intelligence agencies to deal with a ''data deluge'' siphoned from the internet and global telecommunications networks.

The high-security facility nearing completion at the HMAS Harman communications base will support the operations of Australia's signals intelligence agency, the top-secret Defence Signals Directorate.

Security centre: The rapidly expanding volume of Australian data and intelligence has required construction of a ...
Security centre: The rapidly expanding volume of Australian data and intelligence has required construction of a high-security communications and data centre at HMAS Harman. Photo: Andrew Meares

Privately labelled by one Defence official as ''the new black vault'', the data centre is one of the few visible manifestations of Australia's deep involvement in mass surveillance and intelligence collection operations such as the US National Security Agency's PRISM program revealed last week by US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Fairfax Media has confirmed Australian intelligence agencies receive what Defence intelligence officials describe as ''huge volumes'' of ''immensely valuable'' information derived from PRISM and other US signals intelligence collection programs.

Australian agencies assist the US to target foreign nationals and Australian citizens who are of security and intelligence interest to both countries.

''We are overwhelmingly dependent on intelligence obtained by the NSA and the US intelligence community more broadly,'' an official said on condition of anonymity.

Australian officials note that PRISM has been described in leaked documents as the most prolific contributor to President Barack Obama's daily intelligence brief.

''Given that the US shares so much with us, it should be no surprise that this reporting is critical to Australian intelligence,'' one official said, adding that included ''what goes into the ONA [Office of National Assessments] briefs for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the National Security Committee of Cabinet''.

Got a secret? Maybe not with such set-ups such as The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade in the ...
Got a secret? Maybe not with such set-ups such as The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade in the United States. Photo: AFP

Officials cite intelligence relating to North Korea's military threats, information relating to Australian citizens involved in fighting in Syria, missile technology acquisition efforts by Iran and Chinese internal political and economic developments as recent examples of the benefits of Australia's intelligence ties with the US.

US signals intelligence is also described as ''absolutely critical'' to Australia's diplomatic campaign to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

''Without intelligence support, overwhelmingly provided by US capabilities, we would not have won the seat,'' one Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer recently said.

The DSD's website says Australia ''benefits immeasurably'' from co-operation with the NSA, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, Canada's Communications Security Establishment and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau - an international network known informally as the ''five eyes''.

Media reports have suggested both Britain and the Netherlands, another close US intelligence partner, also enjoy access to reporting from PRISM.

Officials estimate that Australia's intelligence capabilities contribute between 5 and 8 per cent of the intelligence collection efforts of the five-eyes community.

Australian signals intelligence efforts, including the DSD's satellite communications interception facilities at Geraldton in Western Australia and Shoal Bay near Darwin, are focused on south and south-east Asia, east Asia and the Pacific.

Officials add that Australia ''contribute[s] actively'' to the targeting of US intelligence gathering, including ''identification of specific individuals of security concern''. But they also emphasise that the DSD complies with legal requirements and ministerial guidelines that limit reporting in relation to Australians, other than those of specific security or foreign intelligence interest.

They are also confident in adherence by the US to agreements similarly limiting intelligence collection and reporting concerning citizens of allies, including Australians.

The most recent report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom indicates that, in 2011-12, there were ''a low number of incidents where the privacy rules were not applied'' by the DSD and most involved ''a presumption of nationality (that has later been found to be incorrect) or minor administrative error''.

Australian officials describe PRISM and ''similar capabilities'' in relation to internet service providers in Australia as ''an inevitable response to the digital communications revolution'' with ''major challenges in terms of data storage and processing''.

The DSD's large headquarters, sometimes referred to as ''the factory'', is at Russell Hill in Canberra and the agency has expanded into another high-security building near Canberra Airport.

However, the rapidly expanding volume of data and intelligence from US and Australian capabilities, described by officials as a ''data deluge'', has required construction of the high-security communications and data centre at nearby HMAS Harman.

The $163.5 million HMAS Harman Communications Facility Project includes an extension to the existing Defence Network Operations Centre, the central hub of Australia's third-largest telecommunications network, and the construction of what is described as ''a co-located but stand-alone communication/data-room facility''.

Due to its complexity and expansion of requirements, the project is 80 per cent over its original budget and five years behind schedule, but is now near completion.

In April 2009, the Labor government exempted the project from review by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works on the grounds that scrutiny ''would not be in the public interest''.

On Tuesday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus declined to say whether US intelligence agencies have shared information gained through PRISM.

''I don't provide comment on intergovernmental arrangements we have in the intelligence area and I don't provide comment on operational matters arising in the intelligence sector,'' he said.