Governance & Risk Management , Incident & Breach Response , Security Operations

Australia to Warn Political Parties of Hacking Risks

Special Briefings Intended to Help Australia Avoid Problems the US Faced
Australia to Warn Political Parties of Hacking Risks
Photo: James Mattis (Flickr/CC)

Australia's federal government is planning to brief the country's political parties next month on cybersecurity threats, a move fueled by worries its electoral process could be targeted by a foreign power.

See Also: Live Webinar | How To Meet Your Zero Trust Goals Through Advanced Endpoint Strategies

Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull said on Jan. 24 that Australia must ensure its critical infrastructure is safe from cyberattacks.

"This is the new frontier of warfare," Turnbull says, according to a video from ABC. "It's the new frontier of espionage. It's the new frontier of many threats to Australian families, to governments to businesses."

Turnbull cited the U.S intelligence community's belief that Russia mounted a campaign intended to disrupt the recent presidential election (see US Government Accuses Russia of Election Hacking).

"It's acknowledged there was Russian interference both in terms of hacking and in terms of seeking to influence the election through so-called fake news," Turnbull says. "Threats like this - from wherever they come - are of great concern to our nation, to our government, to me as prime minister."

The U.S. intelligence community believes Russian President Vladimir Putin directed a cyber espionage campaign that sought to sow distrust in the U.S. electoral system, although it did not conclude the operation necessarily swung the election to President Donald Trump.

The cyberattacks resulted in the release of sensitive internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, which demonstrated bias against Sen. Bernie Sanders, the number two Democratic Party contender behind Hillary Clinton.

Other leaked emails, including those of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, kept distracting the Democratic Party, which underestimated the strength of Trump among voters across the U.S. The profile of some of the leaked emails was raised after they were published on WikiLeaks.

Suspected Hacks

Australia has seen a fair share of hacking activity. In 2015, two computers at the Bureau of Meteorology were compromised. It was widely suspected, but not officially confirmed, that China was involved.

The Australian Signals Directorate found a remote access tool had been installed along with password dumping tools. The ASD concluded that all passwords on the bureau's network were compromised. Evidence was also found that the attackers copied documents.

NewSat, an Australian satellite company, was compromised by China-based hackers for as long as two years. The company had to rebuild its entire network in secret, the ABC investigative program Four Corners reported last year.

So far, Australia says it has never experienced what it would characterize as a full-on cyberattack, which it describes as an incident that seriously compromises national security. But like many other Western nations, it fears the growing dangers.

In April 2016, the government launched a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that intends to raise awareness and strengthen defenses across government and business.

It pledged to spend AU$230 million (US$196 million) over the next four years on a range of initiatives, including building a home-grown cybersecurity industry. But some critics said the funding was proportionally far less that what the U.S. and U.K. spend, which could leave Australia underprepared (see Is Australia Spending Enough on Cybersecurity?).

Basic Security Hygiene

The government's briefings with political parties, which will be held in Canberra, will be overseen by the ASD.

Turnbull says that many weaknesses result from the actions of users, from opening attachments to not using two-factor authentication for cloud-based services and poor password management.

"We need to be aware of the threats and how to mitigate them," Turnbull says. "Awareness is absolutely most important first step."

It's believed the attacks against the Democratic Party didn't involve exotic zero-day vulnerabilities or sophisticated attack methods. Instead, victims apparently fell for very pedestrian, but effective, attacks, such as entering their email credentials into bogus login pages.

"We will be ensuring that all political parties and the other political leaders are well aware of the risks and how to protect themselves," Turnbull says.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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