Spooks use internet and social media to advertise their skills

HUNDREDS of former and some present Australian spies have posted information about their employment with intelligence agencies on the internet in what security experts have called "a gift for foreign espionage".

A survey by Fairfax Media has discovered more than 200 intelligence officers have disclosed their classified employment in profiles on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, and social media including Facebook and Twitter.

While many have disclosed only the fact of their employment by agencies such as the Defence Signals Directorate and the Defence Intelligence Organisation, some have revealed significant details about their work.

These include employment at specific intelligence facilities, overseas postings and liaison with allied intelligence agencies, linguistic expertise and involvement with specific issues and information technology systems.

One former officer of the Defence Signals Directorate has illustrated close co-operation between DSD and allied signals intelligence agencies by listing his service with the air force's No. 3 telecommunications unit at Pearce in Western Australia; the navy's Shoal Bay Receiving Station near Darwin; postings to Britain's Government Communications Headquarters in Gloucestershire, and GCHQ's Composite Signals Station in Cornwall; another posting to the US National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland; and work at the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station in Geraldton, WA.

Other former Defence Signals Directorate and Defence Intelligence officers have listed postings with counterpart agencies in Canada and New Zealand.

DIO officers have revealed specialist knowledge of counter-terrorism, telecommunications and aerospace issues. Information technology professionals are most common in disclosing their involvement in classified intelligence work.

Former officers in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation have disclosed their intelligence employment by referring to the well-known cover designation for ASIO as "D branch, Attorney-General's Department".

A number of present staff at the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, employees of the aerospace giant Raytheon, have revealed their involvement with the intelligence base, including access to "special compartmented intelligence programs".

Linguistic skills highlighted include Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, Hindi, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia, Tetum and Pidgin (Tok Pisin).

Security experts described the information as "surprising" and said it provided "a gift for foreign espionage, especially through social engineering".

This is the art of manipulating people to divulge confidential information, either through the introduction of malware to computer systems through carefully crafted, personalised emails - so-called spear phishing - obtaining access to security codes, or by orchestrating social contact with intelligence targets.

A computer forensics expert, Kim Khor, said the abundance of personal and career information

on the internet was a clear risk for government and the corporate sector, especially companies engaged in national security work or high-technology activities.

"Bad guys would really appreciate this info being available. It's a big advantage to easily identify people who have or have had access to sensitive information," Mr Khor said.

Robert Winkel, a former DSD officer and now an information security consultant at the Saltbush Group in Canberra, said intelligence collection agencies exploited social media and professional networking sites to gather information on targets.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service ''does this and foreign intelligence agencies are looking for exactly the same sort of information about Australian targets", he said.

"The Chinese tend to get a lot of information from open sources and that can lead to opening up contacts that provide high-level access to classified information."

Security and intelligence sources said social media had emerged as a rich source of information. "Once it could take months and laborious inquiries to collect very basic personal information about a target. Now so much of that and much more is often available on the web," one government source said.

"Former intelligence personnel are worthwhile targets as they could be of direct interest, and may still be connected socially to other people who still work in highly sensitive areas.

''Social media can reveal the link, and further research may reveal opportunities such as financial issues, gambling and marital problems."

This story Spooks use internet and social media to advertise their skills first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.