ASIS head warns of cyber threats

CYBER warfare is emerging as one of the biggest threats to Australia's security over the coming decade, the head of the nation's super-secretive overseas spy agency says.

Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) Director General Nick Warner says the federal government is pouring considerable resources into hardening its defences against the rapidly evolving threat.

"Government departments and agencies, together with corporate Australia, have been subject to concerted efforts by external actors seeking to infiltrate sensitive computer networks," Mr Warner said in the first ever public address by an ASIS head in its 60-year history.

ASIS - along with domestic spy service ASIO, the Attorney-General's department and the Defence Signals Directorate - has a lead role in helping to protect the government and business from cyber threats.

ASIS is tasked with using human intelligence to identify the source of the threats and reveal the underlying intentions of the attackers.

"This will become an increasingly important part of ASIS's work in the years ahead," Mr Warner told the Canberra audience.

Mr Warner says advances in information technology, nanotechnology and biometrics are fundamentally altering the environment in which ASIS officers work.

"Developments in cyber are a two-edged sword for an agency like ASIS," he said.

"They offer new ways of collecting information but the digital fingerprints and footprints which we all now leave behind complicate the task of operating covertly."

ASIS was created in May 1952 modelled on the UK's MI6 - made famous worldwide by James Bond - but its existence was not acknowledged until 1977.

Mr Warner was appointed ASIS head in 2009 and is the only member who can be publicly identified.