The federal government’s $2 billion deal with AWS to build a ‘Top Secret’ cloud has sparked confusion in the local tech sector over the true “sovereignty” of the offering and frustrations over the awarding of the lucrative contract to a foreign multinational.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the significant partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) late last week.

Worth an estimated $2 billion over 10 years, the deal will see AWS build a cloud solution capable of storing data classified as Top Secret held by Defence and National Intelligence Community agencies.

A key element of this deal, emphasised in the government’s press release is that this cloud infrastructure will be “sovereign”.

But the federal government has also emphasised that the Top Secret cloud will lead to “greater interoperability and deeper collaboration” with other nations, including Australia’s Five Eyes partners.

This has led to confusion within the local cloud sector over what the federal government is defining as “sovereign” and how this will work in practice if Top Secret data is flowing between other nations such as the US and the UK.

“The problem with the announcement last week is that the government has labelled it as a sovereign cloud,” one senior industry figure told Information Age.

“It has never been designed like that, nor has the entire concept – it has been predicated on sharing.

“I’m at a bit of a loss as to why the government was so keen to badge it as something it so clearly isn’t.

“It’s clear the government for some reason finds it necessary to really lean in with that definition, even when it’s inappropriate to provide that definition.”

With the Labor government’s renewed focus on sovereign capability through its Future Made in Australia plan, this “muddies the waters” over what this means for local companies, the industry source said.

“Is this an attempt to try to bring this Future Made in Australia policy into the cloud space?

“If it is then good luck explaining to the average voter that a $2 billion contract with AWS is a deliverable under that.

“This is a company worth almost as much as the Australian economy.”

A four-year journey

The journey towards Australia beginning work on a Top Secret cloud has been a long and complicated one.

The Australian government issued a tender for this project in late 2020 and was engaged in discussions with Microsoft for most of the following year until the US tech giant backed away from the plans.

This came after the US government canned Microsoft’s $15 billion cloud computing project with the US Department of Defense.

The US government instead moved to create the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, which will involve multiple cloud computing providers bidding for work across all classification levels.

AWS has since won a slew of US government contracts, including a $15 billion cloud contract with the National Security Agency to handle top secret data, and another with the US Navy.

The United Kingdom government has also contracted AWS to handle its most sensitive Defence data.

Interoperability and Top Secret data-sharing

With the Five Eyes nations all looking to establish cloud infrastructure capable of handling Top Secret data in order to facilitate better sharing, this opened the door for AWS to bid for this job in Australia.

A number of the major figures quoted in the Australian government’s press release announcing the AWS deal emphasised that a key element of the Top Secret cloud would be interoperability with international partners.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said it would “strengthen interoperability with key international partners”, while ASD Director-General Rachel Noble said it would be a “state-of-the-art collaborative space for our intelligence and defence community”.

Director-General of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer added that it would “drive even closer integration, sharing and collaboration between agencies, greater resilience and greater interoperability with our most important international intelligence partners”.

But this has led to confusion in the local industry over how this offering would actually be “sovereign”, and what data control and protection measures will be in place.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” the senior industry figure said.

“If Five Eyes is sovereign, well where does that leave those of us only interested in supporting one of those Five Eyes countries?

“Do you need to be operating across all five nations if you’re going to have any credibility to work with intelligence and defence communities?

“Well then, not many Australian tech companies would qualify.”