The head of Australia’s foreign intelligence service has used a rare public address to suggest that an increasing number of disillusioned Chinese officials are willing to cooperate with the agency.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (Asis) director general, Paul Symon, addressed a range of topics related to Australia’s foreign intelligence operations, including the recent Solomon Islands-China security pact, and the need to recruit new spies “with more vigour and urgency” than ever before.

Speaking at the Sydney event, hosted by the Lowy Institute to mark Asis’s 70th anniversary, he said the audience – which included high ranking members of Australia’s intelligence community, the chief of the UK’s MI6 foreign intelligence service, Richard Moore, and top diplomats – would have to “occasionally read between the lines”.

But he was fairly upfront in some of his comments on China, saying there were “more and more signs of officials [and] individuals interested in a relationship” due to their concerns about “an enforced monoculture”.

Symon said his organisation needed to “remain low profile but … not have no profile” as it seeks to adapt to the modern intelligence gathering environment.

“The world is experiencing more than just a realignment in power. The global rules-based order is being manipulated and subverted. The future will likely be less advantageous to Australia than that we once knew.”

He said emerging technologies are posing “a near-existential” risk to the work of services such as Asis, with Australia’s covert activities becoming “increasingly discoverable”.

“As we move forward, Asis will need more officers with more diverse skills and backgrounds supported by more integrated capabilities. We are going to need to recruit and work with even more vigour and urgency than at any other point in our 70-year history.

“At the same time as our operating environment has become more competitive and volatile, it has also become increasingly difficult to conduct human intelligence work,” he said.

Symon said officers “might be one of your family members, one of your neighbours, your classmates or former colleagues” and depending on the city “might just be the person next to you on the train”.

“Right now, I know, somewhere out there … Asis officers are working on strange streets, in bustling cafes, or hidden from plain view.”

Symon said that while human intelligence “remains a core component of statecraft, it must adapt to meet the extraordinary challenges arising from the interaction of a complex strategic environment, intensified counter-intelligence efforts, and emergent and emerging technologies.”

“For a service like my own there is a near-existential dimension to technology risk. The analogue systems and processes which spies of the past took for granted have been relegated to history, and we now live in a fundamentally digital era where our covert activities are increasingly discoverable. In this technological sandbox, authoritarian regimes are having a ‘heyday’.”

Chinese officials willing to talk

Symon also appeared to suggest that Chinese officials and residents are increasingly looking to provide Asis with intelligence.

In a conversation with Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, Symon was asked how Asis gains human intelligence without coercion, and predicted that more “officials, individuals unhappy with the trajectory of closed societies are willing to speak up, are willing to take risks”.

Symon compared China with India where he said “the diversity in the colour of ancient culture…and the extent to which that diversity is so rich and so alive”.

And yet in China, we have an ancient culture but there’s an enforced monoculture that’s being enforced. We don’t yet know exactly how that will play out. But what we’re seeing is more and more signs of officials (and) individuals interested in a relationship.”

“That’s not coercion, that is very real concern about their culture, the lack of diversity in their culture and the direction that they’re heading in,” Symon said.

Ethical questions

Symon was asked how Asis factors ethical and legal questions into its operations, with Fullilove noting the East Timor spying controversy.

Symon did not address East Timor directly – which occurred before his time as director general – but said that for officers who decide to opt-out of an operation because they’re uncomfortable about a task or hold concerns with its legality, he has given them an undertaking that it will not be detrimental to their career.