BoM hack raises spectre of nation-state attacks on Australian targets

The information-security preparedness of Australia's government authorities was being called into question as Chinese authorities recently moved to distance themselves from reports that the hack of the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), which the ABC reported as a “massive” breach based on statements from an unnamed source, was the work of Chinese government-sponsored hackers.

The BoM attack – which was followed in short succession by reports that Indonesia hacked the systems of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) two years ago – raised concerns about Australia's preparedness to counter nation-state attacks that have, if reports are correct, exposed core government business systems to breaches by hackers who may have caused millions of dollars' worth of damage.

Speaking after the BoM hack was announced, Ministry of Foreign affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said that “the Chinese government firmly opposes and cracks down on all forms of cyber attacks. The cyber security issue is a global one which calls for the international community’s joint efforts through dialogue and cooperation in the spirit of equality and mutual respect. It is not constructive to make unfounded accusations and speculations.”

A further ABC report suggested the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) had been hit two years ago, with Indonesian hackers blamed for an incident but the RBA following the BoM's lead by refusing to confirm details of the incident.

A recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute assessment of cybersecurity maturity across the Asia-Pacific region warned about increasing military use of cyberspace, with China noted for its stated intention to “integrate cyber operations into conventional military operations to achieve a competitive edge” and Indonesia mentioned for its establishment of a military cybersecurity centre.

The role of Indonesia's military in its cyber policy was rated as a 5 out of 10, with a similar score given to the country's engagement in international discussions about cybersecurity and other online issues. China, by contrast, rated much higher both in terms of its international engagement (9 out of 10) and the military's role in cybersecurity and online policy (8 out of 10); in that country, cyberspace issues were named as a key aspect of the country's 2015 military strategy.

Both countries received middling scores (5 for China and 4 for Indonesia) on the dialogue between government and industry on cyber issues. Australia, by contrast, was rated 7 out of 10 in terms of military involvement and 9 in international involvement.

Discussions of the risk of nation-state attacks have largely been focused on other countries to date, with the recent breach of millions of personal records at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) particularly drawing attention. But with two key Australian government agencies hit in the same week, Bit9+Carbon Black spokesperson Kevin Flanagan was among those warning that the hacks were a call to action for the Australian government.

"A high-profile breach such as this clearly demonstrates how widespread the problem of cyber attacks is and how vulnerable organizations' computer systems really are,” he said. “Whether the goal is espionage, business disruption or cyber crime, the world's computer systems and databases are at ever-increasing risk. It's time to take back our systems and data by deploying next-generation security solutions and actively hunting for threats before they cause this type of potentially catastrophic damage."

Nation-state attacks have been an ongoing theme for security analysts, who have sought to better understand the motives behind the attacks as well as the things that set them apart from conventional attacks, and the telltale signs to watch for when a nation-state attack is suspected.

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