Cy­ber of­fen­sive to hit Rus­sian hack­ers


Aus­tralia could re­spond to last year’s ma­jor Rus­sian cy­ber at­tack with fur­ther sanc­tions or by us­ing its new of­fen­sive cy­ber ca­pa­bil­i­ties, ex­perts and gov­ern­ment sources say.

Cy­ber Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter An­gus Tay­lor yes­ter­day an­nounced the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would join the US and Britain in tar­get­ing Moscow as the ar­chi­tect of a global at­tack last Au­gust.

Sources said the gov­ern­ment could use Aus­tralia’s new of­fen­sive cy­ber ca­pa­bil­i­ties to hit back at Rus­sia or look at law en­force­ment op­tions or diplo­matic and eco­nomic mea­sures. The of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties can dis­rupt or de­grade the com­put­ers or com­puter net­works of ad­ver­saries.

For­mer Aus­tralian of­fi­cial and cur­rent head of AustCy­ber, Michelle Price, said fur­ther sanc­tions against Rus­sia were on the cards. “Pub­lic at­tri­bu­tion (of the at­tack to Rus­sia) needs to be backed up with fur­ther ac­tion by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment and sanc­tions would be on the ta­ble,” Ms Price told The Aus­tralian.

De­fence Min­is­ter Marise Payne said up to 400 Aus­tralian com­pa­nies were tar­geted by hack­ers, and Mr Tay­lor said there was “no in­di­ca­tion” Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion had been com­pro­mised.

In­stead, Aus­tralian in­tel­li­gence agen­cies be­lieve Rus­sian hack­ers were sys­tem­at­i­cally lay­ing the foun­da­tion for fu­ture of­fen­sive cy­ber-at­tacks.

The agen­cies be­lieve the hack­ers were not steal­ing in­for­ma­tion but rather they were nestling them­selves into the sys­tems so they could make a po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing at­tack in the fu­ture, should they choose to do so.

Fer­gus Han­son, head of In­ter­na­tional Cy­ber Pol­icy Cen­tre at the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, said those re­spon­si­ble were likely prepar­ing to dis­rupt crit­i­cal in­fras­truc­ture. “I think this at­tack, while there are lim­ited de­tails at this point, what it looks like is pre-po­si­tion­ing to al­low for a po­ten­tial at­tack on crit­i­cal in­fras­truc­ture,” he told the ABC.

“What that es­sen­tially in­volves is pre-po­si­tion­ing, gain­ing ac­cess to a net­work, and sit­ting there and wait­ing for the mo­ment where you may want to con­duct an of­fen­sive oper­a­tion that in­volves de­liv­er­ing a pay­load that would for ex­am­ple turn off a power grid, change the routers so you can no longer run your op­er­a­tions in an en­ergy sys­tem or in a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work.”

The in­tel­li­gence agen­cies first no­ticed a sharp jump in the num­ber of at­tempted hacks to breach net­work routers, switches and fire­walls across the Aus­tralian econ­omy about a year ago and at first be­lieved it was the work of smart young crim­i­nals due to the ran­dom tar­gets.

But a pat­tern emerged and they were tar­get­ing com­mer­cial avail­able routers, es­pe­cially Cisco Smart In­stall soft­ware, and it be­came clear the hack­ers were not crim­i­nals act­ing on their own.

Au­thor­i­ties shared their in­for­ma­tion with the US and the UK and now be­lieve Rus­sia was mount­ing a new in­ter­na­tional cy­ber cam­paign against the West, po­si­tion­ing it­self to carry out a broad and po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing cy­ber at­tack on Aus­tralia, the US and Britain if and when it wanted.

Mr Tay­lor is in the US meet­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to dis­cuss re­sponses to cy­ber threats.

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