Cryptocurrency crime a 'future problem' for intelligence agency struggling with talent drain: ACIC

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission chief Michael Phelan. Picture: Karleen Minney
Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission chief Michael Phelan. Picture: Karleen Minney

The head of one of Australia's criminal intelligence agencies has warned cryptocurrency would make investigating transnational crime groups tougher into the future, following the government's struggles to retain specialised talent from leaving for more lucrative private sector positions.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, which works as a central point for law enforcement agencies on a national level, has admitted criminal groups were turning to more covert methods cover financial tracks and the trend would become a future problem for the investigative agency.

Commissioner Michael Phelan said his agency was not well-versed in cryptocurrency, an anonymised, digital form of currency, and often left the work for other agencies.

"If I was to sit there and tell you that we're experts on cryptocurrencies, I would be misleading the Senate," Mr Phelan said.

"It is an area ... we have recognised is going to be a problem going into the future and indeed is a problem now.

"But we're building up our expertise in those particular areas and indeed other agencies, particularly AUSTRAC, are very equipped to deal with this particular area of movement of funds - and we work very closely with them."

The problem, Mr Phelan said, stemmed from a talent drain within the public sector.

Information and communication specialists capable of undertaking the work needed were lured from the law enforcement agencies toward financial incentive.

Mr Phelan said it offered cutting edge tools to make up for it.

"We will never be able to compete with the wages offered by the private sector," Mr Phelan said.

"Having said that though, we have a different factor that attracts individuals to our type of work, and we are relatively successful in luring people ... because we give them the cutting edge tools they need to be able to do their job."

But Professionals Australia, a public sector union representing workers in technical roles, said cutting edge tools don't pay the rent.

Its ACT branch director Dale Beasley said the restrictions on pay and employment conditions would continue to impact the public service's ability.

"Lucrative private sector opportunities created by competition for skills, coupled with declining APS pay prospects, act as a significant factor pushing ICT professionals out of the APS, or preventing them from considering an APS career in the first place," Mr Beasley said.

"Mr Phelan points to the cutting edge tools the APS can provide to lure specialists, but this only goes so far.

"You can't buy a house with network bandwidth, kids can't wear RAM to school, and the private sector has deep pockets to attract these sorts of skills."

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Mr Phelan said while it was important the commission had its own capabilities in the space, it was still able to do the work without it.

Instead, it relied on the work done by state and territory police forces along with the other criminal intelligence agencies.

"We're in the business of intelligence, our agency. We have eight extremely good police forces in this country, we don't need a ninth. So, a lot of the work we do in intelligence is around [research and development]," he said.

"What I don't want to do in the commission is to continually try and reinvent the wheel.

"If there are other agencies who have specialist knowledge in these particular areas, I'd much rather work jointly with them than try and go alone ourselves."

Mr Beasley said it wasn't enough. He's concerned the skills shortage in the agencies could lead to an increased demand in

"The APS needs to be more competitive or Australians will be left paying through the nose to contract in what we need," Mr Beasley said.

"The APS will increasingly be required to respond to threats and challenges that can only be met by a highly skilled ICT professional workforce.

"Failure to build a specialist APS ICT capacity will result in ongoing skills gaps due to the rapid pace of change.

"Investment in reskilling and upskilling in a sovereign ICT professional workforce must be a key priority for the government."

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This story Crypto the 'future' of organised crime, ACIC says first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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