More Australians are “being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than ever before,” the head of the country’s domestic security agency has warned.

“Australians need to know that the threat is real. The threat is now. And the threat is deeper and broader than you might think,” said Mike Burgess, delivering the agency’s annual threat assessment on Wednesday evening.

The director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said there was a “a particular team in a particular foreign intelligence service with a particular focus on Australia – we are its priority target.” Although he did not name the nation state or provide any details about their tactics, he called the threat group “the A-team.”

The name wasn’t intended to be a compliment, said Burgess, warning that several years ago the A-team “successfully cultivated and recruited a former Australian politician. This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime.”

This politician, who went unnamed, had proposed attempting to bring a family member of the then-Australian prime minister into contact with the foreign intelligence service, although this plot did not go ahead.

In another scenario disclosed by Burgess, some of Australia’s leading academics and political figures were invited to attend an all-expenses paid overseas conference to meet the foreign country’s bureaucrats.

In reality, the conference was a front for the spies to build relationships with the attendees — only some of whom did not realize they were working for the foreign power. According to Burgess, the spies bluntly asked the attendees who of them had access to government documents.

“We helped the unaware ones extract themselves, and severed the links between the others and the foreign intelligence service. Several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective,” added Burgess, referencing laws that were passed in 2018.

He said ASIO had contacted the A-team directly, tricking its leader last year into thinking he was grooming an Australian online when in fact he was speaking to an ASIO officer.

“The spy was being spied on, the player was being played. You can imagine his horror when my officer revealed himself and declared, ‘We know who you are. We know what you are doing. Stop it or there will be further consequences.’”

But old-fashioned human intelligence is just one of the threats facing Australia, said Burgess: “The most immediate, low-cost and potentially high-impact vector for sabotage is cyber. Our critical infrastructure networks are interconnected and interdependent, which increases the vulnerabilities and potential access points.”

He said ASIO was aware of one nation state, which he did not identify, scanning critical infrastructure in Australia and other countries — particularly targeting water, transport and energy networks — using “highly sophisticated … top-notch tradecraft to map networks, test for vulnerabilities, knock on digital doors and check the digital locks.”

His comments align with a description of Chinese government activity that Australia’ cybersecurity directorate, alongside its Five Eyes allies, attributed to Volt Typhoon, the hacking group that has caused alarm at the senior-most levels of government over the last year.

Speaking a week after the advisory was published, Anne Neuberger, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, warned: “We know it is not for espionage purposes, because when we look at the sectors like water sectors and civilian airport sectors, those have very little intelligence value.”

“We assess this government is not actively planning sabotage, but is trying to gain persistent undetected access that could allow it to conduct sabotage in the future,” said Burgess. “I’m not sure the potential harm is widely understood.”

Take security more seriously, the director general urged: “Develop a robust security culture. Do not make yourself an easy target. Report suspicious approaches. This is a national challenge that needs a national team to meet it. Every Australian can help keep Australia safe.”

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