Australia claims state player behind spate of cyber attacks

Digital protection and security. Credit: Getty images

The Australian government today claimed it has been the focus of mounting sophisticated cyber attacks by a state player; however, the state player was not named in the announcement.

Some media outlets and security experts have suggested that China could be behind the attacks, as the announcement comes in the midst of Chinese trade sanctions against Australia and bilateral political tensions. According to Australia, Beijing alleges that Australia is acting “as a US proxy” in calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic.

However, Beijing today rejected allegations in the Australian media that it is behind recent attacks as baseless. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian spoke out during a press briefing, later posted online, declaring the claims that China could be behind the attacks “as totally baseless and nonsense”.

The government announcement, on 19 June, follows the Australian Signals Directorate warning of “a sophisticated state-based cyber actor” targeting Australia. The government is encouraging organisations and industry to take expert advice and “implement technical defences to thwart this malicious cyber activity”.

Espionage attacks disrupting and stealing data have hit the government at all levels, most recently the New South Wales state government, health services, industry and critical infrastructure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced.

Freight and Trade Alliance (FTA) director Caroline Zailai told SAS none of its members operating at ports or in the shipping industry had reported outages, disruptions, or data theft. However, FTA did report on 16 June that members were unable to access the government’s Integrated Cargo System due to an outage.

Toll Group, including its shipping operations, has been hit by cyber attacks twice this year.

FTA has now enlisted a cyber expert to head a webinar, Malicious cyber activity against Australian networks, for members on Monday as the government calls on industry to be better prepared. Meanwhile, the Australian Border Force (ABF) has also been warning companies in the supply chain sector of increasing criminal activity. ABF said scammers are targeting and defrauding customs brokers, freight forwarders, shipping, and transport companies.

In one case, a man emailed a licenced customs broker to clear a valuable consignment from the Netherlands. Presenting a driver’s licence and Australian passport, he claimed he was overseas and unable to access a bank account. The broker agreed to pay for the consignment up-front only to find the transport company did not exist.

In a circular released on 29 May, the ABF warned industry members, especially service providers within the international supply chain segment, to upgrade their cyber security and complete a 100-point identification check when engaging new clients.