‘Uncomfortable’ debate about offensive cyber attacks increasingly public as security environment shifts

By Jackson Graham

Monday November 22, 2021

Australia's security environment is complex
Australia’s security environment is complex. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Debate about Australia’s use of offensive tactics to fight cyber attacks will be increasingly public, a security expert says, following the Australian Signals Directorate highlighting its role as both “poacher and gamekeeper”. 

ASD director-general Rachel Noble told the National Press Club on Thursday how Australia’s offensive cyber capabilities are used to “strike back” against offshore cybercriminals conducting malicious activities.

“We never seek conflict,” Noble emphasised. “But we do want our adversaries to know that we are here. We want them to calculate: Today is not the day.” 

The speech follows former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull confirming that Australia had an offensive cyber capability in 2016. 

ANU National Security College senior policy adviser William Stoltz told The Mandarin the ASD was unique in acknowledging its proactive offensive capability, and he credited Noble with keeping it in the public eye. 

“We have come off the back of operations targeting the Middle East and those operations have been done with an obvious military cover,” Stoltz said. 

“We have left that era and are now moving into a period where our targets are going to be much closer to home and not in a declared state of conflict.” 

He said a sophisticated public discussion about how risk-averse Australia should be, and how security agents targeted and potentially interfered with malicious actors was needed. 

“That is somewhat uncomfortable for a country like us. It’s timely that we do have a public debate,” Stoltz said.  “The strategic environment requires that our leaders have a more robust approach to risk than they had in the past.”  

Australia earlier in the year was among countries that said Chinese state security agencies were behind an attack on the Microsoft Exchange mail in January. 

Stoltz highlighted the example as evidence of the environment becoming increasingly complex, with some cases involving overt state actors, and others a murkier state involvement.  

In a different case, Noble in her speech detailed how the ADS had blocked “one malicious IP address at a time” after observing criminals were sending Australians fake text messages about COVID support payments, but found the criminal efforts were coordinated and stronger offensive tactics were required. 

“We used our covert online operations and computer network attack capabilities to infiltrate the syndicate and tear it down from the inside,” she said. 

Noble also highlighted that a quarter of cyber security attacks reported to the ADS last year were against critical infrastructure, including energy, water, telecommunications and health.

She used the address to emphasise Australia’s cyber security was better served by a range of intelligence agencies than a standalone body, amid “contemplation” about whether the growing area of government should be consolidated. 

“I would counsel against it,” Noble said. “Our partnerships with other governments including our states and territories and the private sector can give Australia the best possible national threat picture.” 

Stolz, who has argued for a new intelligence minister to oversee the “large and complex” security portfolio, agreed that a range of agencies with cyber security roles were needed. 

ASD’s primary role will first and foremost be to support ADF missions abroad,” he said. “That is quite different from the Australian Federal Police, which has quite a different ring when it comes to protecting victims and prosecuting crimes.” 

Noble’s speech also referenced the history and ongoing “incredible” intelligence alliance Australia had with the Five Eyes — whose other members are  Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. 

Stoltz said amid Australia’s AUKUS pact with the US and UK countries were potentially considering how the Five Eyes alliance could evolve in the new environment. 

While Noble last week said it was unlikely the five eyes would admit new members, Stoltz believed the alliance should be directed in a more strategic way after evolving as a less formal grouping. 

“NATO has a central secretariat … [and] a permanent staff to guide the organisation in a strategic way. I think Five Eyes needs a similar structure,” Stoltz said. 

“The New Zealand foreign minister has previously expressed reluctance to see Five Eyes used in this way. 

“I think it’s unavoidable, we need to look at these things with a fresh perspective.”


Tackling the growing threats to Australia’s cyber security

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