Another data point for the ongoing debate about whether China has scaled back its cyber-espionage activities a little, or not at all, since Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama met in Washington a few months ago: the Australian government was just hit by a major cyber-attack, which it blames on China.
Reuters reports the target was the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which owns one of the nation’s largest supercomputers. The breach is described as “massive,” and it has national security implications, because the Bureau of Meteorology system has links to the Department of Defense network. It has also been noted that interfering with weather forecasts could compromise Australian military operations, as well as commercial travel.
The Reuters report portrays this attack as potentially troublesome for a very delicate relationship between Australia and China, which is their top trading partner. Australia wants to increase and diversify its exports to the growing Asian middle class, but China is upset that its firms have been blocked from bidding on several major Australian projects due to security concerns, notably a broadband Internet deal valued at “tens of billions of dollars.”
Australia’s ABC network quotes officials expressing a high degree of confidence about the source of the attack, with one of them bluntly stating, “It’s China.” One analyst quoted by ABC said there was hard evidence that China was involved. The details of this evidence were not provided, but the ABC report goes on to review how cyber-attacks against the United States were traced back to Chinese intelligence and military units, so perhaps similar detective work has been performed by the Australians.
Official sources estimated it would cost millions of dollars and require years of effort to repair the security damage from the breach, although the Bureau of Meteorology says its systems are fully operational.
China, of course, denied all culpability for the attack. “As we have reiterated on many occasions, the Chinese government is opposed to all forms of cyber attacks,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “We have stressed that cyber security needs to be based on mutual respect. We believe it is not constructive to make groundless accusations or speculation.”