Australia issued with ‘sobering warning’ over foreign cyber attacks

Australia has been issued with a “sobering warning” of potential cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, with experts flagging the possibility of foreign actors lying dormant waiting to “flick the switch”.

Cyber security experts have warned foreign nations will start to target  and “disable” Australian critical infrastructure to cause the “whole system to collapse”.

Australia’s severe under investment in cyber security was flagged as a growing risk during a session of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on Friday.

The committee is conducting an inquiry into proposed legislation on critical infrastructure to broaden the definition and to empower the Australian Signals Directorate to “enhance security and resilience” of assets.

Senator James Patterson, who chairs the committee, told Sky News the evidence on Friday provided a “sobering warning” about the threat posed to Australia by foreign actors.

The Senator said his focus was less on criminal or ransomware attacks, but on Australia’s susceptibility to crippling assaults on important infrastructure like water, oil, gas and electricity.

Senator Paterson said eminent cyber security experts from Australia and abroad told the committee it was likely foreign actors were “already on our critical infrastructure networks”.

“Dormant foreign state actors effectively lying in wait to potentially do damage to a critical infrastructure asset as a prelude to a regional crisis with the motivation of disabling Australia and preventing us from coming to the aid of our friends and allies”, Senator Paterson said.

“That is very sobering warning from some very eminent experts.

“That’s a profoundly disturbing insight but a very real one and it demonstrates the need why Australian companies and businesses – particularly those in systemically important areas – must drastically lift the level of their cyber security and their resilience.”

Former Cybersecurity Director at the US Department of Homeland Security Christopher Kerbs said there has been a major shift in focus away from intelligence collection from state-based actors.

“As great power conflict increases particularly with the case of Russia or in the case of China… what we may see is pre-cursor operations that disable infrastructure to prevent the opposing power to be able to project power”, Mr Kerbs told the committee on Friday.

“When you disrupt a systemically important critical infrastructure…  it could be like pulling the leg from underneath a stool that causes the whole system to collapse.”

The consensus from the panel of experts was that it was “100 per cent possible” a state-based actor could lie dormant on the network of critical Australian companies.

Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre Chief Executive Rachael Falk said criminal-based organisations often “prepare a network” for extended periods of time before an attack.

Ms Falk said a similar occurrence coming from a hostile nation was possible especially without “good threat hunting and good surveillance”.

“It’s entirely possible … you would have an adversary sitting there for a long period of time waiting to flick the switch.”

The threat posed to Australia by foreign nations was a key feature of ASIO boss Mike Burgess’ 2021 threat assessment speech in which he outlined espionage as a critical threat to national security.

Mr Burgess, the Director-General of Security, said foreign spies were continuously seeking to “penetrate government, defence, academia and business” to steal information, military capabilities, and policy.

“We have hunted, we have discovered and we have dealt with multiple attempts—from multiple countries—to steal Australia’s secrets and undermine its sovereignty”. he said.

Mr Burgess said ASIO had centred a lot of its focus to being “at the crest of the new world of data”.

“To detect and defeat our adversaries, we have to do things they think are impossible. And that applies whether we are seeking to stop a low-capability terrorist attack or confronting an incredibly sophisticated and well-resourced nation state.”

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