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Unnamed state targeting Australia in cyber attack, says PM

Scott Morrison would not name the state responsible, and said he had made the threat public to raise awareness.


Australia is under increasing cyber attack from a ‘sophisticated state-based cyber actor’, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said (Peter Byrne/PA)

Australia is under increasing cyber attack from a ‘sophisticated state-based cyber actor’, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said (Peter Byrne/PA)

Australia is under increasing cyber attack from a ‘sophisticated state-based cyber actor’, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said (Peter Byrne/PA)

A “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” is targeting Australia in an escalating campaign threatening all levels of government, businesses, essential services and critical infrastructure, the prime minister has said.

Scott Morrison would not name the state but there was speculation that the cyber attacks were part of Australia’s increasingly hostile rift with China.

He said he had made the growing threat public to raise awareness and particularly wanted organisations involved in health, critical infrastructure and essential services to bolster technical defences.

A range of sectors are being targeted and the frequency of cyber intrusions to steal and cause harm has increased for months, he said.

“This is the actions of a state-based actor with significant capabilities. There aren’t too many state-based actors who have those capabilities,” Mr Morrison said.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank, said only China had the capability and interest in launching such a massive cyber offensive against Australia.

“I’m absolutely certain that China is behind it,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the allegations, saying Beijing has “been opposing and combating all types of cyber attacks”.

The claims are “totally baseless nonsense”, he told reporters at a daily briefing.

China in recent weeks has banned beef exports from Australia’s largest abattoirs, ended trade in Australian barley with a tariff wall and warned its citizens against visiting Australia.

The measures are widely interpreted as punishment for Australia’s advocacy of an independent probe into the origins and spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia’s foreign minister this week accused China of using anxiety around the pandemic to undermine Western democracies by spreading disinformation online, prompting Beijing to accuse Australia of disinformation.

Mr Morrison said “Australia doesn’t engage lightly in public attribution” but said he could not control speculation about who was responsible for the cyber campaign.

He offered few details about the activities and said it was difficult to understand whether the intrusions were motivated by desire to steal state secrets, intellectual property or the personal data of ordinary Australians.


Scott Morrison (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

Scott Morrison (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)


Scott Morrison (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

Australian investigations have not uncovered any “large-scale personal data breaches”, Mr Morrison said, adding that many of the intrusions have been thwarted.

Defence minister Linda Reynolds said the government’s Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Home Affairs Department published a technical advisory on how organisations can detect and mitigate cyber threats.

The cyber agency warned last month that “malicious cyber adversaries” were taking advantage of key staff at critical infrastructure working from home during the pandemic.

Power and water networks as well and transport and communications grids were threatened.

“We are continuing to see attempts to compromise Australia’s critical infrastructure,” agency head Abigail Bradshaw said.

“It is reprehensible that cyber criminals would seek to disrupt or conduct ransomware attacks against our essential services during a major health crisis,” she added.

The agency also reported “malicious cyber actors” were attempting to “damage or impair” hospitals and emergency response organisations outside Australia.