Covers come off Australia’s top secret cloud

Published on the 11/07/2024 | Written by Heather Wright

Well, sort of, as AWS nabs ‘sovereign cloud’ deal…

The Australian federal government has inked a $2 billion+ deal with multinational AWS to deliver a ‘sovereign’ top secret cloud to handle national defence and intelligence data – and up to 2,000 local jobs.

The 10 year deal will see a local subsidiary of AWS providing the service across three data centres at undisclosed locations within Australia, working in partnership with the Australian Signals Directorate.

“It will transform how we work together.”

Purpose built for Australia’s defence and national intelligence community agencies, the top secret cloud is due to be operational by 2027 and will host the country’s most sensitive information in a move the government says will improve its ability to securely share and analyse the country’s most classified data at speed and scale.

The deal is also being held up as an opportunity to harness technologies such as AI and machine learning, and to support greater interoperability and deeper collaboration with international partners, such as the US.

But that ‘collaboration’ aspect with other nations – something noted a number of times in the public announcement on the deal – has raised questions among some in the industry around just how ‘sovereign’ the top secret cloud will be.

Australia is part of the Five Eyes group along with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, with the countries sharing intelligence with each other.

The handing of the contract to multi-national behemoth AWS, bypassing potential local sovereign cloud offerings, is also likely to irk some in a sector which has long campaigned for more government support for local tech offerings.

AWS, which holds 50.1 percent of market share among cloud providers globally, already has similar offerings for the CIA and the US intelligence community, and to intelligence agencies in the UK, potentially making it an easier choice for Australia, as part of AUKUS.

The ASD will create the standards and specifications for the project, which has been on the table for a number of years. The Office of National Intelligence went to market in late 2020 seeking expressions of interest for potential partners to build a top secret, scalable private cloud service. Later, Microsoft was believed to be in discussions, before the US tech giant  walked away from negotiations, reportedly saying it couldn’t meet the requirements of the proposed platforms nor the timelines required for delivery.

Rachel Noble, Director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, says the cloud will provide a ‘state-of-the-art collaborative space for our intelligence and defence community to store and access top secret data’.

“It will transform how we work together as agencies and partners,” she says, adding that it is a vital part of the $9.9 billion RedSpice (resilience, effects, defence, space, intelligence, cyber and enablers) program, launched in 2022 to bolster Australia’s cyber capabilities and increase offensive capabilities.

Andrew Shearer, Director-general of National Intelligence, says the top secret cloud will lay the foundation for a connected, modern and resilient intelligence community.

AWS has previously said it’s investing $13.2 billion in Australian cloud infrastructure by 2027, supporting an additional 11,000 full time equivalent jobs locally.

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