While security agencies are battling a wave of hack attacks from national governments, they are equally concerned about cyber criminals who are targeting superannuation funds, stealing people’s identities and stalking domestic violence victims.
On June 19, Mr Morrison and Senator Reynolds warned a state-based actor was behind a series of cyber raids on all levels of government, industry and critical infrastructure, including hospitals, local councils and state-owned utilities. Australian security agencies believe China was probably behind the cyber raids but the Morrison government has declined to name the nation state involved.
Senator Reynolds said the threat had “not diminished since then, in fact it has increased”. She warned the attacks were the “new normal” and the problem was two-fold.
“At one end of the spectrum, there are opportunistic cyber criminals who target Australians and Australian companies for financial gain,” she said. “And at the other … there are sophisticated and very well resourced state-based actors who are seeking to interfere in our nation in this grey zone in any opportunistic way that they can.
“This type of activity really does blur with what we previously understood to be peace and war … we now call it the ‘grey zone’ in between.”
The “grey zone” refers to a growing area of political warfare that includes cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns, intellectual property theft, coercion and propaganda.
The new annual threat assessment warns malicious cyber activity against Australia is “increasing in frequency, scale and sophistication”. It says cyber crime is “one of the most pervasive threats facing Australia and the most significant threat in terms of overall volume and impact to individuals and businesses”.
The most common methods of cyber attacks are “phishing” and “spearphishing” – where an email from a purported trusted source asks people to click on a website full of malware that then infects the devices. Ransomware, which threatens to publish a victim’s data or block access to it unless a ransom is paid, has also become a significant threat.
“While our cyber adversaries are becoming more adept, the likelihood and severity of cyber attacks is
also increasing due to our growing dependence on new information technology platforms and
interconnected devices and systems,” the report says.
In 2019-20, the ACSC responded to 2266 cyber security incidents and received 59,806 cyber crime reports.
Cyber criminals quickly adapted their phishing methods to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis, with the ACSC receiving 45 “pandemic-themed” reports between March 10 and 26.
The cyber threat assessment, which will be released by the ACSC, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, follows last month’s release of the government’s new cyber security strategy.
The strategy will impose legal duties on company directors to ensure a reasonable standard of cyber security and give the the nation’s cyber spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, new powers to plug into the networks of critical infrastructure to defend against major cyber attacks.
With Australia on heightened alert for cyber attacks, Senator Reynolds said the government wanted to bring the ASD “out of the shadows” to explain what the agency did to protect Australians.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.