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Spies wanted: Seeking hackers in slippers - no hammers please

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Australia's spy organisations are not looking for script kiddies, says an expert who teaches her students how to ethically hack computers.

The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service are in the midst of recruitment drives, part of which aim to attract the computer savvy to Canberra.

But these are not the sort of skills any trouble-making teenager might boast, according to Associate Professor Asha Rao. She said spy agencies were looking for something more than script kiddies, or skiddies: known in the cyber world as unskilled individuals who cannot write their own sophisticated hacking programs and instead use other people's scripts to gain notoriety.

Associate Professor Rao, who teaches elite IT students at RMIT University in Melbourne, said script kiddies used a hammer to smash their way in but a smarter hacker preferred a needle so the victim did not know they had been hacked.

There are several dozen students in her masters of applied science program specialising in information security and assurance. They learn the skills of computer hacking so they can later work for or consult to large private companies or the government about flaws in their online systems.

The fact national security agencies are relying more on IT specialists has one significant drawback: there are very few women studying IT - women in ASIO's management ranks are outnumbered.

Associate Professor Rao said women made up just 10 per cent of her masters program.

ASIO figures from late February show there were 32 men compared with 13 women in senior executive levels.

This was despite the fact 766 of ASIO's 1717 staff, or 44.6 per cent, were female. In ASIO's counter-terrorism and counter-espionage units the ratio is much higher, with 49.7 per cent of the workforce female.

An ASIO spokesperson said an Australian intelligence community project was in the early stages of identifying and overcoming barriers to women working in the sector.

The director-general of ASIO is David Irvine, and the ASIS director-general is Nick Warner, but the head of the watchdog overseeing them, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, is Vivienne Thom.