Image credit: iStockphoto/Tomas Ragina

In early January this year, Australian media lit up with claims that Israeli criminals based in Ukraine were running online investment scams and cryptocurrency cons built on fake social media posts about Australian celebrities.

It is slightly ironic then that in February, with Ukraine on the verge of a war with neighboring Russia, Australia is offering its support to the beleaguered Eastern European nation. While it is not giving it arms, Australia is looking to share its rapidly-developing cyber defense and offensive capabilities in a potential conflict.

Over the last five years, Australia has significantly ramped up spending on cyber warfare. It claims to be a regional cyber power, with funding boosted by AUD1.35 billion over the next decade.

The capability resides in the Australian Cyber Security Centre within the Australian Signals Directorate, an organization with its origins listening to Japanese radio traffic during World War II.

Space is another frontier for cyber warfare as nations launch next-generation satellites, which is one factor behind the recent creation of the Australian Space Agency.

Today, according to the ASD’s chief Rachel Noble, Australia has “offensive capabilities” in the cyber realm, which gives the nation the ability to defend and attack.

“Offensive cyber has been fully integrated into ASD’s signals intelligence and cyber security functions and is a mature component of the OneASD mission to protect our national security,” she told the National Press Club in Canberra last November.

Avenues of Assistance

In lending assistance to Ukraine, Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology, Dr Toby Feakin, has been tasked with discussing avenues of assistance with the Ukrainian Government.

His role plays into the recent Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership signed by Australia and the U.K., extending to the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance comprising the two countries, Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand.

“In the cyber context, there have been significant cyberattacks already in Ukraine, understood to have come potentially from Russian sources,” said Marise Payne, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, recently.

“And to be very clear, this is a challenge that they have been dealing with for some time. If Australia can assist in that regard, we will.”

The world of cyber warfare is a murky one, but it has become another weapon in the arsenal of national sovereign defense for many countries.

“In the cyber context, there have been significant cyberattacks already in Ukraine, understood to have come potentially from Russian sources”

Russia reportedly launched cyberattacks against Georgia in 2008, while any consideration of a feared Chinese attack on Taiwan begins with a scenario that starts with a massive cyberattack in an attempt to immobilize the island’s armed forces and communications infrastructure. Ukraine’s power grid was also attacked in 2015 in a forerunner of what might play out if the conflict escalates.

Apart from celebrity scams, Australia has not been immune to these attacks either. In December, an offshore hacker obtained the payroll information of as many as 80,000 Government workers in South Australia and demanded a ransom payment. Local reports blamed Russian hackers for the incursion.

Potentially incapacitated

In an environment of escalating tension between Australia and China, experts have warned that hackers could incapacitate Australia’s ability to mount a response to any aggression through disabling power stations, hospitals, banks, and logistics.

That warning came after hackers, reportedly from China on this occasion, hit Queensland power firm CS Energy with a ransomware attack in November and came within minutes of accessing the generators which circulate power to the electricity grid.

The danger is that many of these hacking groups are also state-sponsored, giving potential adversaries significant capabilities if conflicts were to escalate.

In addition to investing in the Australian Signals Directorate, the country is also taking legislative action with a new ID Act passed last year, which gives police and intelligence agencies reach beyond Australian borders in three areas: data disruption, network, and account takeover warrants.

The laws allow authorities to modify and delete data, take control of online accounts if they believe a crime is taking place, and covertly monitor WhatsApp chats of iMessage texts.

Even before the legislation passed the Parliament, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were claiming success, reporting that they had prevented criminals from stealing AUD24 million from the pension funds of Australian workers.

In the criminal sphere, the AFP is ramping up its cyber capabilities by creating the Joint Policing Cybercrime Coordination Centre — or JPC3 — which will work with policing agencies across the Australian states.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews boasted that this AFP-led cybercrime unit “will be cutting edge and will ensure Australia is leading the world on cyber security.”

These are big claims that are difficult, from an outside perspective, to impossible to evaluate.

Perhaps when the history of the current Ukrainian crisis emerges, we will understand the role cyber warfare has played and how — if at all — Australia’s capabilities assisted in helping an ally on the other side of the world.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Tomas Ragina