Australia's cybersecurity maturity, infrastructure protections lag US by “large gap”: ACCS

Election-time review of Australian policy slams shallow government policy, navel-gazing academics

A UNSW review of Australia's government cybersecurity policies has slammed a “relative lack of attention” to persistent policy gaps and shortcomings that it says have kept the country well behind its peers in areas such as education and training policies, and planning for security breaches causing critical-infrastructure disasters.

Developed as an election-time input to help the next government set its agenda on cybersecurity policy, the UNSW-affiliated Australian Centre for Cyber Security (ACCS) white paper noted that despite “impressive” growth in the federal budget through 2020, the Australian government had understated its exposure to cybersecurity threats that have been openly acknowledged and addressed by comparable authorities in the US.

The resultant “large gap” in cybersecurity policy has “important policy implications” that negatively impact the “security and prosperity of Australians,” report authors Greg Austin and Jill Slay noted. “There are unrevealed time/policy trade-offs in the federal government's positions,” they write, noting that a relatively new commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects “will have no strong pay-offs in the next decade” in terms of bolstering Australia's deficient cybersecurity workforce.

“The country's education and policy needs to make giant steps not currently planned.”

The assessment comes after an unusually busy time in ICT strategising at the federal level, with clear commitments to improving cybersecurity technologies and policies first in the 2015 Budget, then in new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's far-reaching National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) and, more recently, the release of a five-pronged Cyber Security Strategy. Those initiatives have been broadly welcomed by industry and academia, but the ACCS analysis slams them as not going anywhere near far enough to give cybersecurity the priority it needs.

“Since advanced information and communications technologies (ICT) underpin all modern science and most industrial and consumer activities, security of or against those technologies would, one might think, be of the highest priority for the most developed countries,” Austin and Slay write.

“Looking at current and future threats, Australia’s key allies – the United States and the United Kingdom – take this view. Australia does not.” This shortcoming had become particularly apparent in what the report flagged as a particular deficiency: the “relative lack of attention in Australia, at least in public, to planning for extreme cyber emergencies.”

Australia's critical infrastructure had been left vulnerable by the absence of clear, serious planning around how to handle a potential infrastructure failure caused by a cybersecurity breach, the report warned in lauding the work of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to deal with such issues.

The INL work – which lays out a three-tiered defensive approach around cybersecurity hygiene, advanced persistent threat and 'high impact low frequency events' – lays out a two to four-year upgrade cycle designed as a “grand challenge to develop novel and deployable solutions to take a set of high value infrastructure assets off the table as targets”.

Australia, by contrast, has “no comprehensive effort that matches the approach adopted by INL,” the ACCS analysis warns. “In fact, much of the government's effort is spent on the lowest priority tier [cybersecurity hygiene].” The report also looked more broadly at the evolution of cybersecurity as a discipline within Australia, noting that misappropriation of the “relatively undefined” term 'cybersecurity' had allowed security vendors to use it “as a descriptor for an ever-growing and complex set of systems and tools which are promised to keep the user safe.”

Research-focused academics hadn't helped the situation, Austin and Slay warned. “Our understanding of cybersecurity, particularly within academia, does not appear to have been driven by, or to have developed in parallel with, cybersecurity policy,” they write, noting that many once-innovative cybersecurity academics had stayed within “niche fundable fields” and had failed to nurture students and junior researchers to advance the overall cybersecurity cause within Australia.

“There has been a consistent lack of agreement on the nature of cybersecurity and academics...focus on the mathematics of verifiable solutions, cryptography, formal methods and machine learning,” they write.

“As time and government policy has moved on, these older academics [have not produced] the new bodies of knowledge needed to respond to modern cybersecurity, cyber defence and cyber warfare challenges.”

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Tags NISA frameworkCyber Security StrategyINLUNSW AustraliaACCScyber crimecyber securityelectionsSTEM educationICTMalcolm Turnbull

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