Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 02:23 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 02:23 | SYDNEY

China cyber snooping (and ours)


Graeme Dobell

22 April 2009 16:26

Australia needs to apply a certain cynical realism to the unpleasant fact of Chinese internet and industrial espionage. The fact of China’s growing espionage effort doesn’t automatically confirm the Beijing Bogey thesis.

Yes, the Chinese are pouring lots of effort into snooping around the net, trying to pry out secrets across the world with China going in for cyber espionage and the potential for cyber attack. But rather than being alarmed, reflect on the fact that if electronic eavesdropping and computer snooping were Olympic sports, the Chinese would face tough competition to take the gold.

The Chinese are certainly in training. The Chinese, though, are up against one of the most potent dimensions of the Anglosphere — the intelligence network of the English-speaking world that has been humming nicely for more than 60 years.

The signals intelligence resources mobilised by the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) would still swamp the Chinese. Then add the substantial contributions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. With some notable exceptions like Iraq, this combined Anglo team has been winning gold medals for quite a while.

When it comes to China, Australia has been doing its bit for decades. The once important signals intelligence monitoring stations in Hong Kong and Singapore operated with an Australian accent. Part of Canberra’s urban lore concerns the operation of Australia’s China spy HQ.

Come for a short stroll down the hill from Parliament House and see how it works. Turn down Coronation Drive, and on the corner with Forster Crescent stands the huge Chinese Embassy compound. On the other side of Forster Crescent is a row of other embassies: Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Papua New Guinea. And after PNG, a building that is an anomaly in embassy row. The sign out the front describes it as the Attorney-General's Department training centre.

Most of what happens in the building, though, is about training all sorts of eavesdropping gear across the road at the Chinese embassy. In 1995, the Keating government fought a mighty but ultimately unsuccessful battle to stop the Fairfax press and the ABC from revealing that electronic spying program.

Business for the A-G’s centre is still brisk and has the potential for expansion — the next block along from the training centre is vacant, awaiting the construction of a new embassy for Russia.

But the fact that Australia has a long history of spying on China doesn’t mean we have any plans to go to war against them. We would call it prudent insurance or natural hedging. So would they.