For the first time, the federal government’s computing and defence experts will brief the Coalition, Labor, Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation on how to protect their sensitive data from foreign cyber attacks.
According to The Australian, the five groups will be invited this week by the prime minister to a classified briefing next month by the Australian Cybersecurity Centre – a team within the Australian Signals Directorate, which is the government agency responsible for IT security.
Each invitee must agree to respect the secret nature of the meetings in order for the presentations to go ahead. The parties are expected to be briefed on how to protect their databases and mitigate risks.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is meeting with the ASD today along with the minister assisting the prime minister on cybersecurity Dan Tehan, confirmed that his political foes will be invited to the presentations as electronic attacks threatened democracy as a whole, above party politics.
“In recognition of the importance of the issue as an ongoing national security concern, I will be inviting all interested parties to a special briefing from the ACSC and my adviser on cyber security, Alastair MacGibbon, on how to further strengthen their cyber security,” Turnbull told The Australian.
“We all have a role to play to ensure our cyber security and that includes the custodians of our electoral system and democracy.”
The move comes after US intelligence agencies found Russian forces attempted to influence the outcome of last year’s presidential election, with a massive leak of private email correspondence among Democratic Party officials embarrassing contender Hillary Clinton.
Tehan told The Australian that, while there is no evidence that such attacks have been launched on the Australian electoral system, it was important to be protected at a time when several state elections are coming up in the next couple of years.
“The use of cyber to maliciously influence the democratic process is a recent development in statecraft and we need the proper protections in place in Australia to prevent it happening here,” he said.
Former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general David Irvine is credited as the first to raise the alarm late last year in a speech that referred to “covert cyber influencing”.
“It is not simply espionage or the sabotage of infrastructure and war-fighting capabilities,” he said at the Australian Institute for International Affairs.
“Covert attempts to influence political thinking have long been an element of the art of intelligence. Social media gives foreign states, as well as any number of non-state private-interest groups, the ability to influence public opinion by saturating the social cyber-sphere with carefully targeted information, misinformation, malicious gossip, innuendo or accusations, which are taken up by the mainstream media and which can spook our politicians against objective decision-making. Of course, politics was ever thus, but the internet provides a new and potent vehicle for this phenomenon of ‘cyber influencing’ for political gain.”