PM Morrison warns of ‘sophisticated’ state-backed cyber attacks

PM Morrison warns of 'sophisticated' state-backed cyber attacks
Scott Morrison said the "malicious" activity had been increasing over months
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Daily US Times: Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the country’s government and institutions are being targeted by an ongoing sophisticated state-based cyber hack.

Mr Morrison said the cyber attacks were widespread, covering “all levels of government” as well as businesses and essential service providers, but added no major personal data breaches had been made.

The Prime Minister declined to identify a specific state actor. He said, the activity has been increasing in frequency over many months.

Cyber experts had identified it as a state hack “because of the scale and nature of the targeting and the trade craft used”, according to Mr Morrison.

When Mr Morrison was asked whether that country had been identified, he said he would not make “any public attribution”.

On Friday, he said: “There are not a large number of state-based actors that can engage in this type of activity.”

He stressed that similar “malicious” activity had been seen in jurisdictions globally, making it not unique to Australia.

They say China is one of the few states, along with Iran, North Korea and Russia, which have the capacity for such attacks – and are not allied with Australia.

Joshua Kennedy, a cyber expert told: “There’s always simmering tensions between Russia and China so really it comes down to those being the key actors they [Australia] would be referring to.”

Last year, Australia’s parliament and main political parties were hit by a “malicious intrusion” on their computer networks carried out by a “sophisticated state actor”.

According to a Reuters report, Australian intelligence agencies suspected China of carrying out the 2019 hack. Canberra declined to comment.

Mr Morrison urged health infrastructure, service providers and businesses – to improve their technical defences, while he was speaking on Friday.

He said: “We raised this issue today not to raise concerns in the public’s mind, but to raise awareness in the public’s mind.”

“We know what is going on. We are on it, but it is a day-to-day task.”

Major cyber attacks in Australia

The country has suffered major cyber attacks in the past.

In 2020, incidents reported across major Australian firms, including logistics firm Toll Group, steel maker BlueScope and state government agency Services New South Wales.

In June 2019, a “highly professional” group of up to 15 hackers gained access to student and staff details, as well as academic research, for about six months. It was revealed by Australian National University.

Australia’s parliamentary network was the subject of an attack in 2019. Source: Getty Images

In February 2019, the country’s political parties and parliamentary computer network were subject of an attempted attack by a “state actor”.

In 2017, Information about navy vessels and fighter planes was stolen from an Australian government contactor.

In 2015, Foreign spies attacked the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The unsaid part of the story: China

The headline itself was clear. Many political parties, health and educational organisations have been targeted by a state-based cyber actor with “significant capabilities”.

However, much about Mr Morrison’s press conference was understated.

For example, it was not clear why this announcement was made at this particular moment – given these attacks have been going on for a while. Mr Morrison made a similar announcement early last year.

He blamed “sophisticated state actor”, but refused to mention names – even after being directly asked about the country almost everyone was thinking about: China.

Relations between China and Australia have grown tense in recent years but have significantly worsened after Australia echoed the US in calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, first detected in China late last year.

China has since stopped beef imports from Australia, imposed tariffs barley and warned Chinese citizens and students about the “risks” of travelling to Australia for tourism or education because of racist incidents.

Beijing said in a statement that students should be “cautious” when choosing to go or return to Australia.

The ministry said: “The spread of the new global Covid-19 outbreak has not been effectively controlled, and there are risks in international travel and open campuses.”

“During the epidemic, there were multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia.”

Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan said in response that the country was a “successful, multicultural society” which provides a “world-class education”.

He also made reference to Australia’s success in flattening its virus curve which meant that it was “one of the safest countries in the world for international students to be based in right now”.

Australia has also ratcheted up its rhetoric. Last week, Mr Morrison said he would not give in to “coercion” from Beijing.