Terror fears for Australia’s cyber security

THE Government has confirmed foreign spies hacked into the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to steal sensitive documents.

The 2016 Threat Report reveals last year’s cyber attack on BOM was the work of a foreign power, which managed to install malicious software and steal sensitive documents.

But Dan Tehan, the minister assisting the prime minister for cyber security, wouldn’t specify which country, but said it showed cyber espionage was alive and well.

“We have to make sure that we’re taking all the steps necessary to keep us safe, because the threat is there and the threat is real,” he told ABC radio.

The ABC has previously reported that the BOM attack came from China.

“It’s China,” an unnamed official told the ABC in 2015.

China has previously denied the attacks came from them.

“As we have reiterated on many occasions, the Chinese government is opposed to all forms of cyber attacks,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the ABC.

Terror threat real

Terrorists could soon have the ability to infiltrate and wreak havoc on secure Australian government networks, according to the report.

The Australian Cyber Security Centre says a recent series of brazen attacks on high-profile entities shows there’s a willingness to use disruptive and destructive measures to seriously impede or embarrass organisations and governments.

Local government networks suffered 1095 serious cyber assaults in the 18 months to June 30 this year, The Australian reported.

But the report warns this can rise and estimates that within three years terrorists will be able to compromise networks with destructive effect.

Mr Tehan said the threat of a cyber attack from terrorists is currently ranked low but acknowledged Australia’s digital integrity was being increasingly tested.

“We are ahead of the terrorists now and that is where we must remain,” he wrote in The Australian.

But speaking on ABC Radio Mr Tehan said the threat is growing.

“It’s real, and that’s why the government is releasing this document which points to the threats that we face in this area,” Mr Tehan told ABC Radio.

“We have to understand that when it comes to cyber terrorism there is a growing threat there.”

He said while terrorists have used social media in the past mainly for recruitment purposes they are now changing their methods and strategies.

“The real danger is if they’re able to recruit, get the right people, then they will be able to use cyber as an offensive weapon,” he said.

“We’re making sure we’ve got the capabilities and protections in place to keep us cyber secure.”

Growing number of attacks

Australian government and private sites have been hit by a series of recent high profile cyber attacks.

The Chinese were reportedly responsible for the Bureau of Meteorology attack in late 2015, in which the BoM’s supercomputer, whose system straddles the country with links into many top agencies, was breached.

But the most famous recent cyber attack in Australia — on the Australian Bureau of Statistics — wasn’t actually an official “hack”, despite being described as one.

When the Census site was hit by a series of denial of service (DDos) attacks, which aim to crash a site by flooding it with more requests for information than it can handle on August 9, the ABS and IBM shut it down after 2 million Australians had lodged their Census.

A DDoS isn’t officially a hack because it doesn’t actually breach the security of a site.

In November 2015, the personal details of thousands of Queensland TAFE students was stolen when its system and that of the state’s Education department were hacked.

Big companies targeted by attackers in Australia include retailers Kmart and David, where the personal details of thousands of customers was stolen over two days in October last year. The company assured the clients their credit card details were safe as transactions were handled externally by banks.

Daily auction site Catch of the Day was forced to urge its customers to change their passwords after a data breach. The company was criticised for waiting 38 months to disclose the attack, which compromised clients personal details, encrypted passwords and in some cases their credit cards, in May 2011. They said police and banks were informed, but they didn’t issue a general disclosure until July 2014.

There have also been a number of significant attacks on international commercial and government sites.

Cheaters the world over were sent into a spin in July last year, when a group of hackers calling themselves “The Impact Team” stole over 60 gigabytes of data from Ashley Madison, an introduction service for people wanting to have extramarital affairs. The fallout was immediate, with cheating spouses publicly outed, and some of them took part in a multi-million dollar class action against Avid Media, owner of the site.

In December 2014, entertainment giant Sony Pictures was targeted by North Korea over the release of the Seth Rogen comedy, The Interview, which poked fun at its leader Kim Jong-un.

The company’s Twitter accounts were taken over and up to 100 terabytes of data were stolen over a period of up to a year, leading to the reporting of top salaries, embarrassing emails discussing major celebrities and upcoming films.

But while these public airings of commercial information wreaked a lot of harm, cyber terrorists also have the capability to influence essential infrastructure.

This happened last December, when a group widely believed to be Russian hackers took over Ukraine’s power grid and caused rolling blackouts for up to 225,000 people over several hours, in what was the first cyber-attack on a power grid.

The ease with which the attackers took over the network — by sending phishing emails and taking over the computers of the energy company’s workers — sent shudders through worldwide intelligence services, with fears the tactic could be repeated internationally.

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