Australia was hit by “a sophisticated state-based cyber actor” Friday morning in an escalating cyber campaign threatening all levels of national government, businesses, essential services and critical infrastructure, the prime minister said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to name any specific country amid inevitable speculation the cyber onslaught reflects Australia’s increasingly hostile trade rift with China.
Morrison said he made the growing threat public to raise awareness and particularly wanted organizations involved in health, critical infrastructure and essential services to bolster technical defenses.
A range of essential sectors were being targeted and the frequency of cyber intrusions to steal and cause harm has increased for months, the conservative coaliton leader said.
ABC News reports Morrison emphasised the attacks “hadn’t just started”, were ongoing and constant threats to Australia, and the accumulation of attacks required a firm warning to the government and private sectors to harden their shields.
Some of the attacks have been on state government departments and agencies and local governments, all of which hold sensitive economic and personal data.
“This activity is targeting Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure,” 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,” Jennings told the Associated Press.
China in recent weeks 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, as Breitbart News reported.
Australia’s decision to join the U.S. and ban Huawei from any participation in a national 5G network also remains a “sore point or thorny issue” between the two countries, the Chinese ambassador alleged in February, adding “discrimination against a Chinese company” lies at the core of the dispute.
The telecommunications giant was banned in August 2018 from joining Australia’s 5G rollout due to security concerns. The then Turnbull conservative coalition government chose to follow the U.S. lead and say “no” to Huawei.
AP contributed to this report