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1 April 2022

Decrypting the work of Australia’s cyber intelligence front line at the National Museum of Australia

An unprecedented glimpse at the history, techniques and future of Australia’s enigmatic signals intelligence and cyber defence agency is the focus of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Decoded: 75 years of the Australian Signals Directorate explores the exploits and achievements of ASD, and the critical work of the organisation in collecting intelligence about foreign adversaries, while keeping Australians and our most critical secrets safe.

Formed following World War Two to tackle code breaking, ASD has grown and evolved over the subsequent 75 years, being responsible today for foreign signals intelligence, and protective and disruptive cyber operations.

ASD’s mission statement, ‘Reveal their secrets – protect our own’, has inspired its people to master and pioneer new uses of technology to defeat and deter threats to Australia. ASD proudly operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible, recruiting the best and brightest Australian women and men.

The anniversary exhibition explores the history of the organisation from the wartime 1940s to the present day, including early cipher, codes and encryption; the Cold War; the evolution of the Five Eyes international intelligence partnership; key military operations; technological evolution; the post-9/11 confrontation against terrorism and contemporary cybercrime challenges.

The exhibition features the early technology used for codebreaking and explores the evolution of cyber challenges in the ever-evolving online age.

The exhibition also offers an interactive game for visitors to work as a team to defeat the cyber criminals, and a central experience that showcases the never-before-heard stories of the diverse and skilled staff who work behind the front line to keep Australia safe.

ASD Director-General Rachel Noble PSM said, ‘It brings all of us great joy to share the history of ASD. So many of our former and current staff have never been able to tell anyone much about the work they have done. The exhibition is a celebration of their amazing work over 75 years and I’m sure for more than 75 years to come.’

National Museum Director Dr Mathew Trinca said, ‘The history of the Australian Signals Directorate mirrors that of the maturing and growth of the Australian nation in so many ways.

‘We hope all Australians who are able to visit the exhibition will leave with an appreciation of the role of this crucial, but often unrecognised, work by the men and women at the cyber security frontline.’

Leaders in immersive exhibition design and technology, Art Processors have created an interactive experience driven by true stories.

Art Processors Project Director Jamie Houge said, ‘This exhibition is a chance to meet the real people of ASD and discover these true stories, characters and incidents that are part of their critical work and experiences.

'As visitors explore the exhibition, they can trigger hidden moments or scan code words to "intercept a signal" and reveal an added layer of storytelling.’

Decoded: 75 years of the Australian Signals Directorate is at the National Museum of Australia from 1 April until 24 July 2022.

Media contact: Diane Morris 0436 030 741 or media@nma.gov.au

Background

History of the Australian Signals Directorate

  • ASD is Australia's oldest national intelligence organisation.
  • In 1942, during the Second World War, the Central Bureau was formed. The bureau drew on US Army and Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force intelligence personnel, and the Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne (FRUMEL), to obtain intelligence by intercepting Japanese military communications. It was an early form of what is now known as ASD.
  • In 1947 the Australian government established a permanent signals intelligence agency in the Department of Defence.
  • Initially called the Defence Signals Bureau, it became the Defence Signals Branch in 1949, then the Defence Signals Division in 1964 and the Defence Signals Directorate in 1977. The agency was renamed the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) in 2013.
  • ASD has continued to evolve over the past 75 years. Its mission has expanded to provide cyber security advice and assistance to Australian governments, business and individuals, and to prevent and disrupt offshore cyber-enabled crime.
  • To this day, ASD continues to collect and communicate foreign signals intelligence and support military operations, and has the people and technology needed to safeguard the cyber security of all Australians.

Selection of object highlights and key exhibition moments

  • An interactive game where visitors can experience what it's like to step into an ASD cyber security mission, and work as a team to beat cyber criminals before time runs out.
  • A central space of towering columns with a digital waterfall of real declassified ASD code words that reveal current and former ASD staff sharing their stories of their work and experiences at the agency.
  • Hidden audio moments visitors can trigger to ‘intercept a signal’ and reveal an added layer of storytelling as they move through the exhibition space.
  • Code words visitors can scan and decipher to activate rich detail about the objects and exhibits.
  • An immersive space where visitors step inside a dazzling display of colour and shape symbolising the evolution of radio frequency signals throughout ASD’s 75-year history.
  • M1 three-rotor Enigma cipher machine: the German Enigma was one of the most important cryptologic challenges of the Second World War. ‘Breaking’ the machine was the primary focus of Alan Turing and the staff at Bletchley Park in the UK during the war. Their success allowed the Allies to intercept and read enemy communications, giving them an immeasurable advantage.
  • Typex Mark 23 and rotors: the Allied equivalent of the German Enigma machine, developed in Britain in 1934 and used by the Allies, including Australia, during the Second World War to securely communicate.
  • Speakeasy: an Australian device developed in the 1990s using voice encryption to secure telephone calls over the public telephone network. It was designed as a desktop device for use with a regular telephone handset. The Speakeasy was superseded by secure mobile telephony in 2002.
  • CRAY X-MP 2.2 ‘Marsik’: weighing in at five tonnes the CRAY was Australia’s first supercomputer. Acquired by the Defence Signals Directorate in 1986, it was the most powerful computer in Australia at the time with at least 10 times more power than the machine it replaced. The CRAY ran at 100MHZ and 400+ Mflops (mega floating-point operations per second) with 32 megabytes of memory, significantly less powerful than a modern smartphone. The computer was decommissioned in 1993.
  • Australian coat of arms: the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on 9 September 2004 left the coat of arms in pieces. The bombing demonstrated the ever-present threat of terrorism to contemporary Australian society. ASD staff continue to work on terrorist threats today.
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