ASIO boss Mike Burgess warns of rise of extremism in Australia during COVID-19

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday June 9, 2020

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Australia’s safety against security threats has weakened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess.

Burgess recently told Work with Purpose host David Pembroke that the nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the response it demanded has been different to past national crises, which has led to feelings of uncertainty within his organisation.

“COVID is completely different and in this case the enemy is unseen. And actually, we’re not front and centre, we’re not there with law enforcement agencies dealing with a terrorist threat. It’s our medical profession, our nurses and our doctors and the health industry that’s actually the first responders dealing with a threat, completely different,” he said.

“The thing that surprised me the most was the level of anxiety in our workforce — equal to the anxiety in our country — and that’s all of us just dealing with something we haven’t had to deal with before, so that was a surprise.”

He noted that Australia is “less safe” because of the pandemic, and has seen a rise in extremist activity.

“Obviously we’ve seen more people at home, and as they’re at home, they’re online. And we’ve seen increased chatter in the online world when it comes to the spread of extremist ideology attempting to radicalise people,” he said.

“We’ve seen more of that just as we’ve seen more criminal behaviour online — cybercrime — which is well reported by other agencies.”

Earlier this year Burgess raised concerns over the growing “extreme right wing threat” in Australia, especially in regards to groups targeting young people.

“I am particularly concerned that we continue to see vulnerable and impressionable young people at risk from being ensnared in the streams of hate being spread across the internet by extremists of every ideology,” he said.

“As a father, I find it truly disturbing to see cases where extremists are actively trying to recruit children who have only just started high school and are as young as 13 or 14.”


Read more: Australian not-for-profit warns against growing extremism during COVID-19


The intangible nature of the internet

Burgess argued there is a problem with social media and tech companies not cooperating with ASIO, the police, or other security agencies during investigations, in another push for laws which would allow ASIO to access the platforms’ end-to-end encrypted content.

“Yes, privacy is paramount, but privacy is not total because there’s a balance between privacy and security, and under the rule of law when appropriate warrants are in place, law enforcement or ASIO should be able to get access to something. And to be very clear here, it’s one of those interesting dilemmas of this intangible nature of the internet,” he said.

“As a society, whether we know it or not we’ve accepted the fact that the police or ASIO can get a warrant to bug someone’s car or someone’s house. Why should cyberspace be any different? Yet every time we have these conversations with the private sector companies, they kind of push back and say, ‘No, we’re not so sure about that’.”

He described concerns that ASIO and other security agencies might misuse such laws as “simple nonsense”, noting that ASIO is subject to independent oversight from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Margaret Stone.

“[Stone] can come in and red card me, and if I don’t cooperate with the inspector-general, I’m going to jail and that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Fancy working for ASIO?

Burgess said the organisation is looking for “clever, curious people” who come from “all walks of life”.

For a security or intelligence officer’s role, ASIO wants people who are engaging, charismatic, and deeply analytical, with good language skills, and knowledge of international and domestic politics.

Technical officers and surveillance officers, on the other hand, should “know how to follow people unseen, undetected”, among a range of other skills.

Burgess encouraged anyone who is interested in applying to “keep an eye out” for jobs posted online.

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