21/04/2016 11:46 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

'Military' Options Considered For Responding To Cyber Threats, Government Says


The federal government has revealed it is prepared to use military options to respond to cyber attacks on Australia, as Malcolm Turnbull unveiled a $230 million package to boost Australia's online security -- and apparently we're worried about hackers targeting our refrigerators.

The new Cyber Security Strategy, released on Thursday, outlines a four-year plan to bolster Australia's ability to "detect, deter and respond" to electronic threats. A new Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on cyber security will be appointed, as will Australia’s first Cyber Ambassador through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, while capabilities to prevent or minimise threats will be increased through extra support to the Computer Emergency Response Team, the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

But the headline news out of the report is that the government is willing to use military intervention to hit back at cyber attacks and threats.

"The Government must also be ready to respond to incidents when they occur. Cyber incidents do not necessarily need a cyber response and the Government can draw on a range of options, including law enforcement, diplomatic, economic or even—as a last resort—military responses to a cyber attack," the report said.

"Any measure used by Australia in deterring and responding to malicious cyber activities would be consistent with our support for the international rules-based order and our obligations under international law."

A graphic from the report

The strategy continues a trend, with February's defence white paper outlining the multi-billion dollar purchase of electronic and cyber warfare equipment, including 12 Growler "electronic attack aircraft" which can "disrupt, disable and/or confuse adversaries’ systems such as radar and command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems."

The white paper said 1200 cyber security attacks were detected in 2015, including some against Australian government agencies. In a foreword to the cyber security report, Prime Minister Turnbull said cyber attacks on the public and private sector, as well as individuals, were "unprecedented"; while the report itself claims Australian organisations "have been compromised." It follows reports in December that computers at the Bureau of Meteorology were targeted in a sophisticated cyber attack.

On Thursday, Turnbull confirmed government agencies had been targeted recently.

"I can confirm reports that the Bureau of Meteorology suffered a significant cyber intrusion which was first discovered early last year. And the department of Parliamentary Services suffered a similar intrusion in recent years," he said.

The report said that the internet based economy contributed $79 billion to the Australian economy around 5 per cent of GDP -- in 2014, with estimates this could grow to $139 billion, 7.3 per cent of GDP, by 2020.

"Worldwide, losses from cyber security attacks are estimated to cost economies around one per cent of GDP per year. On this basis, the real impact of cybercrime to Australia could be around $17 billion annually," the report said.

"These costs are expected to rise. Government, telecommunications, resources, energy, defence, banking and finance sectors are likely to remain key targets for cyber criminals and malicious state actors alike."

Other parts of the strategy include:

  • $30 million for a Cyber Security Growth Centre
  • focus on training "highly-skilled cyber security professionals"
  • 100 new government jobs in cyber security capacity and capabilities
  • annual cyber security meetings, hosted by the Prime Minister, with business and research community leaders
  • boosting the capacity of the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate
  • boosting the number of threat detection and awareness, technical analysis and forensic assessments of cybercrime in the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Federal Police
  • Voluntary cyber security governance ‘health checks’ for organisations

Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam said in a statement he "welcomed" the news, but also took the opportunity to attack the government over its other communications policies including broadband and data retention.

"We agree with Prime Minister Turnbull that the internet is the most important tool for innovation in Australia, so we’ll keep fighting his efforts to cripple the National Broadband Network," Ludlam said.

"We agree that the internet should be open and free, so we’ll keep fighting the intrusive Liberal/Labor data retention scheme that places every Australian under surveillance."

The government is also telling us to check on our fridges; no, it's not the start of a bad joke (no, our fridge isn't running, so we don't need to go catch it). As the "internet of things" -- the term used to refer to internet capabilities being embedded in everyday items like light switches and kitchen appliances -- grows, there is also increasing opportunity for hackers to target those devices.

"The range of possible targets is expanding from computers and phones to other devices connected to the Internet of Things, such as cars, fridges and medical equipment," the report said.

The takeaway point from the report -- keep an eye on your refrigerator.

Read the whole report here.