(Image: Getty)

From the alleged US penetration into Russia’s electricity grid, to Russia’s online campaigns to disrupt US elections and China’s frequent dabbling in digital espionage, cyberwarfare is increasingly emerging as one of the main tools employed in countries’ jostle for power.

If Trump’s recent decision to call off air strikes in favour of a cyberattack against Iran is anything to go by, online offensives can be a more palatable strategy than physical attacks. They add another option when sanctions and other forms of diplomacy fail.

Before considering whether Australia is prepared to defend itself against these threats, it’s important to understand what cyberwarfare entails and the many ways that it can play out.

Browsing history

While cyberwarfare is considered to be any online-based attack linked to a nation-state, there is some dispute about the exact definition. It comes in several different forms, with online sabotage being one of the most confronting. For example: the “distributed denial of service” (or DDoS attacks) against Estonia in 2007, or the 2008 attacks targeting Georgia and other nations. In both cases, a large number of government and other important websites were disrupted, defaced, or used to distribute spam.

Cyber attacks can also cut off essential services or damage critical infrastructure, such as when an Iranian cyberattack shut off power to 40 million people in Turkey in 2015. In 2012 an attack — also by an Iranian group — against Saudi Aramco oil affected 30,000 computers in an attempt to halt oil production. The US and Israel are in on the action as well, collaborating on Stuxnet, a computer worm that caused significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. 

Espionage is another key part of cyberwarfare, exemplified by the US’ massive data collection program, XKeyscore. Cyberwarfare can also take place as online propaganda. The most notable example is Russia’s social media campaigns during the 2016 US election. If US prosecutors are correct, then cyberwarfare has even been used in a bank heist. North Korea is believed to be linked to the attempted $1 billion theft from the Bank of Bangladesh.

While these attacks have already caused large amounts of damage, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the effects of cyberwarfare could get much worse if global tensions heat up. Both the US and Russia have been poking around in each others’ electricity grids. This indicates that they are at least looking for critical flaws, whether or not they have any immediate plans to act on them.

How does Australia fit into the picture?

Australia’s biggest threat is China, which in just the last year has been implicated in major attacks against both Parliament and the Australian National University. Since Australia is already under attack, an effective cyber defence strategy is paramount.

Unfortunately, Australia’s safeguards are lagging behind. The country’s cybersecurity strategy was disorganised and far from comprehensive until 2014, when the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) was launched. It aimed to act as a central hub where government agencies could collaborate.

This was complemented by Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy which was announced in 2016. The strategy included enhancements to information sharing, new threat research centres, cybersecurity guidelines and funding to address the skills gap.

Australia’s Cyber Engagement Strategy followed in 2017, which outlined Australia’s expectations from other nations in cyberspace, the code of conduct for Australia’s online offensive operations and other key digital policies.

Looking to the future

While this initial flurry of activity was promising, it didn’t achieve enough, and cyber policy has seemingly fallen by the wayside in the ensuing years.

In a 2017 report, Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy was criticised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It pointed out flaws in the strategy’s overall design, its lack of measurable outcomes and insufficient funding to adequately achieve its aims.

Although some new research centres have opened since then, and more funding has been granted to various cyber-related initiatives, there haven’t really been any major moves in national policy. If anything, the government’s focus on cyber security could be backsliding.

In 2018, under Scott Morrison’s cabinet reshuffle, the position of Junior Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security disappeared. Itnews alleges that the Department of Home Affairs has also removed the position of National Cyber Security Adviser. It was held by Alastair MacGibbon, who also led the ACSC; however his replacement, Rachel Noble will not be filling both roles.

These moves seem to indicate that national cybersecurity policy is far less of a priority under the Morrison government. Given the threats heating up around the world and that Australia is already facing damaging acts of cyber warfare, this lack of commitment poses a severe national security risk.

Unless the government takes a strong approach toward cyber defence, Australia will continue to have important data stolen through Chinese espionage and could even fall victim to devastating attacks against its critical infrastructure.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey