Step Into ASIO’s Chamber of Secrets

Step Into ASIO’s Chamber of Secrets
Image: Warner Bros.

Being secretive and shadowy are two major tenets of being a spy. It’s why Australia’s own spy agency, ASIO, lurks behind the scenes and rarely admits to how it works or what it’s up to. An ABC report has managed to get inside the building to reveal a room never publicly acknowledged before — its Chamber of Secrets.

The ABC report revealed it had an anechoic chamber, a ‘chamber of secrets’, specially designed for testing listening devices.

The room sits in the ASIO headquarters basement along a 250-metre corridor. ASIO head Mike Burgess told the ABC it was technically ‘floating’ so that it would not be impacted by the building’s vibrations or movements.

The room’s floor is made up of wires so heeled shoes are apparently prohibited. Below the wired floor is a maze of panels designed to trap sounds and make the room completely silent. The design apparently allows listening devices to be tested using sounds lower than what the human ear can pick up.

Outside of the secret chamber revelation, rooms full of classic spy stereotypes were unveiled. Like something out of James Bond, or even Johnny English, there’s a room full of disguises — wigs and glasses, a photography lab and a room full of keys.

Prior to the ABC gaining access to the headquarters, many of the rooms’ existence was never acknowledged. The change of heart is all part of Burgess’ plan to make the shadowy agency a little more transparent — as much as a spy agency can be, anyway — in order to drive up recruitment.

Earlier this week, ASIO fired up a Twitter account, joining other intelligence agencies on the site such as Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and U.K. equivalent GCHQ.

The account has posted a number of exchanges, intended to be comical and light-hearted, but the response has been particularly critical. I suppose that’s what happens when you operate an agency, shrouded in secrecy and aimed with collecting intelligence on Australians.

ASIO has been particularly interested in its crusade to access encrypted messaging between criminals — something that has been heavily criticised by tech companies and privacy advocates.

“The real challenge comes when you have a lawful need — so the police are investigating something or ASIO is investigating something and they’ve got a warrant and they want to get access — and those providers actually refuse to actually cooperate with governments,” Burgess said in a June podcast.

“That’s a problem for me because as societies, especially democratic societies, we understand, we operate within the rule of law.”

Burgess has previously maintained ASIO was able to utilise the controversial encryption legislation, known as the Assistance and Access Act, within 10 days of it passing into law back in December 2018.

“I can confirm that ASIO has used the Assistance and Access Act to protect Australians from serious harm. We needed to take advantage of the new powers within 10 days of the legislation coming into effect – a clear indication of its significance to our mission,” Burgess said in early 2020.

“And I’m happy to report that the internet did not break as a result!”

The encryption legislation is before a Senate committee review that’s due to deliver a report in August. It may not have broken the internet but the report is expected to delve further into whether the law is actually proportionate.