The Australian government has imposed strict new security rules at the Adelaide site where nuclear-powered submarines will be built, moving to reassure allies that sensitive military secrets will be protected.
The new rules require four operators at the Osborne naval shipyard, including those building the Hunter-class frigates and offshore patrol vessels, to guard against espionage and foreign interference.
These operators have been ordered to prepare for risks such as “deliberate or accidental manipulation” of critical components and the transfer of “sensitive operational information outside Australia”.
According to the new rules, information that must be protected includes layout diagrams, schematics, geospatial information and operational constraints.
The operators must carry out background and suitability checks before people are allowed unescorted access to the shipyard. They must record the date, time and duration of access by every person, whether escorted or unescorted.
The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, quietly rolled out the measures last week under the country’s critical infrastructure laws and confirmed the moves when approached by Guardian Australia.
“Our critical infrastructure assets are targets for foreign interference, cybercriminals and other malicious actors who wish to do Australia harm,” O’Neil said in a written response to questions.
“By declaring the Osborne naval shipyard a critical infrastructure asset we can implement security measures and build resilience in the facility and its workforce against these threats.”
The government has said nuclear-powered submarines will be built at Osborne – the first project under the Aukus partnership with the US and the UK – but it remains unclear how soon domestic construction can begin.
The US has previously only shared its naval nuclear propulsion secrets with the UK – in the late 1950s – and US officials are determined to ensure Australia can protect those secrets against foreign spies.
With just weeks to go until the three countries announce the Aukus plans in more detail, the new rules designate the naval shipbuilding and sustainment assets at Osborne as critical infrastructure assets.
The instrument covers areas overseen by four operators – including the government-owned Australian Naval Infrastructure and ASC.
It also applies to the entity trading as BAE Systems Maritime Australia, which will build the Hunter-class frigates, and Luerssen Australia, which has a contract for offshore patrol vessels.
Each operator must set out plans to protect the security of its area of responsibility at the precinct and prepare for critical risks such as “the storage, transmission or processing of sensitive operational information outside Australia”.
Other critical risks include a stoppage or major slowdown or “deliberate or accidental manipulation” of critical components of the site.
Operators must also, as much as possible, “minimise or eliminate material risks” posed by “a malicious or negligent person” or by dissatisfied employees and contractors after they are fired or their contracts expire.
The operators will have to provide annual reports to the Department of Defence.
O’Neil said the country faced “evolving threats” and the Australian government would “continue to use our national security laws to protect the critical infrastructure assets that all Australians should be able to rely on every day”.
In a human rights assessment attached to the new rules, O’Neil acknowledged collecting personal information about employees and contractors had an impact on their right to privacy.
But she said this was “reasonable, necessary and proportionate in achieving the legitimate objective of protecting national security and the defence of Australia”.
The head of Asio, Mike Burgess, warned this week that the online targeting of Australian defence industry insiders had increased since the Aukus announcement a year and a half ago.
Declaring that his agency was taking a “more aggressive counterespionage posture”, Burgess conceded that Australia’s allies and partners were looking for assurances that their military secrets would be protected.
Burgess said one of the reasons he was disclosing the successful operation to expel a “hive of spies” from Australia was because “as we progress Aukus, it’s critical that our allies know we can keep our secrets and keep their secrets”.
He did not disclose the country responsible for the “hive” but said the spies were working undercover – some for years – with sophisticated tradecraft and wanted to steal sensitive information.