Cyberwarfare: ‘We may not know until it’s well advanced’

Cyberwarfare: ‘We may not know until it’s well advanced’


The report finds Australia is unprepared for an increasingly likely cyberwar.

“In many ways, we may not even know when a cyber attack or indeed when a cyber campaign against Australian interests has begun,” says Professor Medcalf.

“We may not know until it’s well advanced. There may be all kinds of preparation, pre-positioning, collection of intelligence — there’s already been a wave of intelligence attacks or theft of data from Australia, from companies, from government, even from universities in recent years — so that first wave of cyber conflict may be very difficult to detect.”

Former chief of the Australian Defence Force, Chris Barrie, is one of the voices urging the Government to better prepare for possible threats.(AAP: Alan Porritt)

A former diplomat and senior intelligence analyst, Professor Medcalf trains Australia’s defence and intelligence officials at the National Security College in Canberra.

In November 2018, the college was commissioned by the Defence review to run a wargame with at least 17 senior officials who concluded Australia was “not well set up to deal with” cyberwar.

“We plotted out plausible futures just a few years from now to look at whether our systems could in any way stand up to the kinds of cyber attacks that an actor like China, Russia, North Korea or maybe even organised crime could throw at Australia,” he said.

“The report found that Australia is certainly underprepared, in some ways unprepared, for full-scale cyber attack.”

The National Security College’s report of the wargame, also obtained by the ABC under FOI laws, warned a foreign power in a cyberwar “will not just exploit weaknesses in computer systems; they will exploit vulnerabilities in society.”

In one of the scenarios considered by the group, an enemy country launches simultaneous cyber attacks on Australia’s critical infrastructure, like the electricity grid and military networks, as well as against food supply chains.

In another, the adversary hacks into autonomous vehicles and drones, causing road crashes and igniting bushfires.

In a third scenario, the prime minister is hit by a corruption scandal over payments into his or her bank account, while mass distrust and confusion are sewn by so-called “deep fake” videos of leaders and “false flag” attacks designed to divert blame.

With Australia’s cyber systems no longer secure, the nation is isolated from its allies and ejected out of the Five Eyes intelligence community by the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand.

“It’s pretty widely assumed that the powers with the capability and potentially the intent to clash with Australia’s interests in cybersecurity are China, Russia and North Korea,” says Professor Medcalf.

“It could involve interference in systems or sabotage of critical infrastructure: power, water, sanitation, transport.

“It’s not always clear that these could be attributed to a particular state unless the state chose to signal its responsibility or its intent, but cyber conflict instead could occur in a subtle way as part of an overall campaign to pressure Australia to change its policies on a certain issue, an economic issue, or indeed a foreign policy issue.”

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