Revelations that Australia’s government, including departments of the prime minister and cabinet, had been hacked sent Canberra into a flurry this week. But it was the detail that extensive blueprints and schematics for the Australian Security Intelligence Organization’s new headquarters building that had been accessed, allegedly by China no less, that caused the most hand-wringing. After all, the report came less than two months after Australia’s Labor government announced closer bilateral ties with the Chinese at a high profile event in Beijing.
The initial response from Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus was that the report was “inaccurate” but they refused to elaborate. In a telling sign, Foreign Minister Bob Carr assured the public that nothing had happened to change Australia’s relationship with China, its largest two-way trade partner, and the biggest single customer for Australian exports. Opposition attorney general and Liberal George Brandis, however, asked for and received a briefing from ASIO that led him to confirm the hacking occurred, although it may have happened as far back as 2009.
China has denied involvement, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying the charges are “groundless accusations [that] will not help solve” the international issue of cybersecurity. But the issue is likely to remain hot, especially amid recent high-profile accusations of China’s hacking against military, industrial and media targets in the United States. Indeed, Barack Obama is expected to broach the issue of cybersecurity with China when he meets with his counterpart Xi Jinping next week in California.
For Australia, the prospect of an online raid of its government’s data raises questions about how the nation of nearly 23 million should respond to such attacks from abroad, in what is turning out to be a geopolitically competitive region. In January, Gillard highlighted the importance of cyber security to Australia’s defense strategy and announced the formation of the Cyber Security Center, which would allow it to “detect, deter and deny” offshore malicious cyber aggressors.
Brandis, it should be noted, acknowledged that ASIO had dealt with the hacking and he was “reassured” by the intelligence agency’s response. But the forecast for more trouble from cyberattacks is clear. In fact, it’s a new frontier in global competition. That’s why some argue that Australia needs to increase its offensive capabilities as a deterrent. Whatever response Australia ultimately takes, either diplomatic or strategic, the revelations around the ASIO hacking represent the latest example of an evolving contest whose rules are far from being firmly established.