Australia cyber attacks: PM Morrison warns of ‘sophisticated’ state hack
Australia’s government and institutions are targeted by sophisticated state-based cyber attacks, says Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Morrison said cyber attacks were widespread, covering “all levels of government” as well as essential services and businesses.
He refused to identify a specific state actor and claimed that no major personal data breaches were committed.
The attacks have been happening for many months and are escalating, he said.
The prime minister said his Friday announcement is intended to raise public awareness and urge businesses to improve their defenses.
But he stressed that “malicious” activity has also been seen globally, making it not unique in Australia.
Who was targeted?
Morrison did not mention specific cases, but claimed to have embraced “government, industry, political organizations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure.”
He did not provide any further details. Previously, defense producers, government contractors and accounting firms were among those who reported data breaches.
Last year, the Australian National University said it had been violated by a sophisticated operation that had access to staff and student details.
The main Australian political parties and parliaments were hit by a “malicious intrusion” in early 2019, also attributed to a “sophisticated state actor”.
Who’s behind it?
Speaking on Friday, Morrison said officials have identified it as a state attack “because of the size and nature of the target and the boats used.”
“There isn’t a large number of state actors who can engage in this type of activity,” he said, without giving details.
When asked to identify a country, Morrison said he did not want to make “any public attribution”.
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Cyber intelligence experts have long linked various hacks in Australia and China.
They say China is one of the few states, along with Russia, Iran and North Korea, which have the capacity for such attacks and are not allied with Australia. However, they also note that cyber espionage between countries and even allies is common.
“There is always a slight tension between Russia and China, so it really depends on who the key players are [Australia] it will refer to, “expert Joshua Kennedy-White told the BBC.
Reuters news agency previously reported that Australian intelligence agencies suspected that China had carried out the parliamentary attack in 2019. Canberra declined to comment.
The unspoken part of the story: China
Shaimaa Khalil, BBC News Australia correspondent
The title itself was clear. Many political, educational and health care organizations have been targeted by a state cyber actor with “significant capabilities”. However, much of Morrison’s press conference was downplayed.
For example, it was not clear why this announcement was made at this particular time, given that these attacks have been going on for some time. Morrison made a similar announcement earlier last year.
Despite accusing a “sophisticated state actor”, he refused to name the names – even after being directly questioned about the country almost everyone thought: China.
Relations between countries have become tense in recent years but have worsened significantly after Australia echoed the United States in asking for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, first detected in China late last year.
Since then, China has imposed tariffs on Australian barley, stopped beef imports and warned Chinese citizens and students about the “risks” of traveling to Australia for tourism or education due to racist incidents.
Australia has also increased its rhetoric. Last week, Morrison said he didn’t want to give in to Beijing’s “coercion”.
It’s hard to be 100% sure that China could be behind this, but what we do know is that the Australian leadership has chosen a time when its relationship with its powerful trading partner is at an all-time low to publicly announce that it is under cyber- attack from a powerful state.
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What actions has Morrison urged?
He said that companies, especially healthcare infrastructure and service providers, should improve their technical defenses.
Cyber defense agencies have thwarted “many” hacking attempts, but protection required “constant consistency and enforcement,” he added.
“Today we raised this issue not to raise concerns in the public mind, but to raise awareness in the public mind,” said Morrison.
“We know what’s going on. We’re working on it, but it’s a daily task.”
Major cyber attacks in Australia
2020: Incidents reported in major Australian companies, including steel producer BlueScope, logistics company Toll Group and state government agency Services New South Wales
June 2019: Australian National University revealed that a “highly professional” team of up to 15 hackers had access to student and staff details, as well as academic research, for about six months
February 2019: The Australian parliamentary computer network and political parties have been subject to an attempted attack by a “state actor”
2017: Information on fighter planes and naval ships was stolen by an Australian government contactor.
2015: Foreign spies attacked the Australian Meteorological Office.