Cyber Security, Community Fear and Maintaining Trust – a Rare Insight into the Thinking of an Australian Security Czar

May 4 2018, by David Forman | Category: Technology Group

ASIO Director General Duncan Lewis provided some rare and frank insights into his perspective on his job, international cyber security challenges, false perceptions of  government, and the balance of public interest and private rights in a rare public address to UNSW’s Meet the CEO program.


Mr Lewis reflects on the delicate balancing acts for ASIO in a world of “heightened anxiety” and unprecedented threats in areas such as foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs.

For example, he acknowledges that social media and the connected lives Australians now live creates a “treasure trove” of data intelligence agencies can access, and how it is the institutional checks and balances have contributed to ASIO successfully navigating its way through the cyber era.

On the one hand, cyber intelligence gathering is cheaper, more reliable and quicker than the old forms of human information gathering through surveillance. People’s access to news about terrible events from around the world creates a sometimes unwarranted worries about their personal safety.

On the other, many are understandably concerned access to this Big Data creates an opportunity for the agency to prey on the community.

He credits the many institutional checks and balances – from ASIO enabling legislation that requires him to brief the Opposition and protects his independence of advice to his Minister, to the Parliamentary and statutory officers to whom he must report – in creating a culture of strict lawfulness in the agency.

A measure of this success was the rise in confidence in ASIO since the nadir in its reputation in the 1970s, Mr Lewis says.

This contrasted with the willingness of the public to share sensitive personal information with private businesses with far less legal constraints.

The banking Royal Commission has shown some business leadership “pitifully wanting”, he says.

Mr Lewis also reflects on how his career across the military and civilian parts of Defence taught him easy it is to become cloistered in one organisation and to recognise the great skill and intelligence in other parts of the public service in particular.