Cyber-diplomacy: Australia’s aspirations for online peace and prosperity

By Stephen Easton

Thursday October 5, 2017

The Turnbull government has made an unprecedented foray into cyber-diplomacy by publishing Australia’s first International Cyber Engagement Strategy, which addresses the online expression of international crime, conflict, economic development, human rights and trade.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop launched the new manifesto yesterday, eight months after appointing Tobias Feakin as the first national Ambassador for Cyber Affairs.

“Digital trade, cyber-enabled intellectual property theft, technology for development and operations to influence elections are some of the ways cyber affairs permeate our international conversations,” she writes in the opening lines of the new document.

Bishop adds that “as exciting possibilities emerge, critical debates unfold and global rules are agreed” in cyberspace it is important for Australia to be part of the conversation.

The document is framed as a set of eight goals that Australia will work towards, such as “an open, free and secure” internet with multi-stakeholder governance, and a world where “human rights apply online as they do offline” — perhaps a poorly worded aim given they quite often don’t apply in practice offline, as the strategy notes later.

Tobias Feakin, Australia’s first Cyber Ambassador.

The new strategy tells the world Australia will “advocate for the protection of human rights and democratic principles online” and join international efforts to do the same. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will also “ensure respect for and protection of human rights and democratic principles online are considered in all Australian aid projects with digital technology components”.

Of course, Australian officials will continue to exercise extreme caution before they criticise other nations for rights violations, whether online or offline, depending on how the national interest is interpreted. And human rights will continue to be secondary to legislative and executive power, for most Australian politicians, until they are strongly codified.

Australia’s diplomats also hope to promote digital technologies as a tool for economic development in the Indo-Pacific region. They want to help expand internet access, “encourage the use of resilient development-enabling technologies for e‑governance and the digital delivery of services” and support entrepreneurship, digital skills and integration with the global economy.

DFAT’s new international cyber-relations plan also states that Australia wants to “maximise the opportunity for economic growth and prosperity through digital trade” via trade agreements and harmonised standards.

Other aspirations include “a strong and resilient cyber security posture for Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the global community” and “stronger cybercrime prevention, prosecution and cooperation, with a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific” as well as “a stable and peaceful online environment” in general.

The engagement strategy also sets out how Australia will continue to pursue “a comprehensive and coordinated cyber affairs agenda” both at home and abroad. The outward-looking publication comes 18 months after the government published the Cyber Security Strategy, which had its first annual update in April this year.

Tim Wellsmore, a former manager of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s cyber team who now works for information security firm FireEye, says the international engagement manifesto is an important step in positioning Australia to face a range of threats and opportunities.

“Australia is seen as one of the leading nations in this region for cyber issues, including its recent cyber security strategy,” Wellsmore said.

“The Department of Foreign affairs has been working hard to drive forward its policy settings and the agenda to start to meet its interests and those of partner nations are being considered in the region.

“Many regional nations have no real capacity to understand or respond to cyber issues, and organised crime and cybercriminal threat groups often flourish in these nations while their governments deal with other important issues such as terrorism, territorial and other military concerns.”

Wellsmore sees the value in setting out how Australia sees its responsibilities to help other nations that aren’t as well positioned, but acknowledges the stated goals represent significant challenges.

“This is no small task, as Australia is still struggling to understand the size and scope of the threat, as well as [with] having any real ability in reducing the impact of cybercrime and related cyber issues,” he said. And he sees the cyber resilience taskforce recently convened by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as another small step in the right direction.

“As we know, Australia is not alone in dealing with these issues, and large global cyber events continue and will likely do so for the foreseeable future,” Wellsmore added.

“The recent signing of the agreement with China and Australia is another sign that the policy teams are working hard to position Australia to respond to nation-state threats, but, often, these agreements are only one small step in the long journey to success.”

Another recent step in the continued elevation of cyber security as an important area of national public policy was the promotion of Alastair MacGibbon, who was appointed the Prime Minister’s special adviser on cyber security last May, to a deputy secretary role in PM&C that looks almost like it was created especially for him.

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