Foreign nations harming people in Australia: spy chief

More people than ever are being targeted for espionage and even being hurt and pressured by foreign nations in Australia, the spy chief says.

All Australians and not just public servants need to be alert to the threat, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said, pointing to academics, journalists and private sector workers being targeted.

"Based on what ASIO is identifying, investigating, assessing and disrupting, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than ever before," he told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess
Foreign governments trying to harm people in Australia is a very real threat, Mike Burgess says. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

People had been pressured to leave the country and return to another nation, Mr Burgess admitted, following a string of questions about China luring nationals from Australia.

Without speaking on whether that was true, Mr Burgess said people had been pressured to return to other countries.

"We have seen people targeted by foreign governments, we have seen foreign governments try to harm people in the country," he said.

"This is a very real threat that needs our continuing response."

But "there's not a lot you can do about it" if people are pressured to leave Australia and do so voluntarily.

But it was unlawful to remove someone forcefully, Mr Burgess said.

"If we knew about such activities, we would deal with it as best we could," he said.

Without naming China, Mr Burgess said there had been too much media focus and attention on a particular country in the region and wanted people to be aware foreign interference came from a range of nations.

"I'm genuine in my comments that foreign interference comes from more than one country," he said.

Threats to life also remained "an enduring priority", Mr Burgess said, with the national terror threat level set at possible.