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As State-Sponsored Digital Threats Escalate, Australia Plans to Defend Itself

05 Nov 2020
By Anton Lucanus
Computer screen with Chinese flag and source text.  Source: Shutterstock.

For a long time, Australia enjoyed a unique position among Western democracies.  Until recently, Australia played a prominent role in international politics, exerting influence on global affairs while escaping involvement in major conflicts.

In June, Australia became the target of an organised, nationwide cyberattack. This was a state-sponsored effort to compromise government systems at all levels, as well as the networks of a great many private companies. Such events have become more common of late, as cyber warfare becomes the new weapon of choice in the modern geopolitical sphere.

Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t name the country believed to be behind the attack, most experts have already pinned the blame on China. Morrison said the wave of attacks did not result in the theft of any data, but they still set off alarm bells nationwide. That is because many experts had found that the attacks were largely successful, but the attackers had chosen to not exploit the access they gained.

The Fallout Continues to Spread

In response to the attack, the Morrison government announced a plan to invest heavily in upgrading the nation’s cyber defences. The initial plan called for more A$1.35 billion in expenditures spread over the next decade to kickstart efforts to safeguard Australia’s digital infrastructure. In making the announcement, Morrison indicated that the latest attacks were just the most recent in an escalating pattern over the course of many months.

He also seemed to indicate that this latest attack was a veiled response to Australia’s recent insistence on a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the globe. China had already responded with a series of retaliatory measures, including a tariff on Australian barley and a cessation of beef imports.

But after this latest incident, China stepped up its public rebukes of Australia, insisting through state media that it had caught Australia waging an espionage campaign within its borders. China also claimed that Australians had been spying while using diplomatic passports as a cover, which would be a major breach of international law.

In response, the Australian government called the claims baseless, insisting that Chinese state media is not a trustworthy information source. All told, the exchange represented the biggest international dustup that Australia has been involved in for some time. And as the cybersecurity initiative indicates, the exchange is going to have lasting consequences.

The Long-Term Plan

Beyond the top-line figures associated with the Australian government’s cybersecurity plan, it also gave some specifics about what the money would be used for. The initiative’s formal title is the Cyber Enhanced Situational Awareness and Response (CESAR), and it contains several specific provisions aimed at a few different areas of concern.

$31 million is earmarked to help the Australian Signal Directorate (ASD) better address offshore cybercrime and take other enforcement actions. The plan also provides $35 million to develop a nationwide cyber-threat sharing platform and $12 million for network providers to deploy new technologies to block known malicious websites as they are identified.

But some of the plan’s larger line items were less specific, including $118 million to expand digital intelligence capabilities and data science operations, and $62 million to help the ASD develop defences against large-scale nationwide cyber threats.

Topping off the CESAR plan is a $470 million fund to hire up to 500 new cybersecurity professionals to aid in the long-term fight. But there is still some question as to how long it might take to fill those positions. Although Australian universities are continuing to expand high-level cybersecurity degree programs, the nation is still suffering from a massive skills shortage in that area.

As Australia begins to bulk up its digital defences, it remains to be seen how successful it will be and if sufficient preparations can happen fast enough for it to matter. Right now, with international threats rising, it is clear that the pre-existing national posture was not nearly guarded enough. So far, there have not been serious consequences. But as global tensions continue to rise, that might change in a hurry.

So, for the foreseeable future, Australian government agencies and privately-owned businesses can do little but wait and watch. With some luck, they might be able to weather whatever attacks are yet to come. But it is obvious that the rules of the international game have changed. National defence is no longer a matter of military preparedness, but also of technological prowess. And in that new reality, we are about to find out how well Australia measures up.

Anton Lucanus holds a BSc from the University of Western Australia and is the Founder of Neliti, Indonesia’s largest digital library with over 200,000 publications and 3 million monthly website visitors.  Anton is a past recipient of the AIIA’s Euan Crone Scholarship.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.