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Firming up Australia’s cybersecurity ecosystem

As part of its efforts to improve Australia’s cybersecurity posture, the federal government recently released its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy Industry Advisory Panel report, which has received overall widespread support.

The report recommends more transparency about government investigative activity, more protection for critical infrastructure, better real-time blocking of attacks, and strengthened incident response and victim support programs. However, some doubt whether this enough and if there still gaps that need filling? How can and should the public and private sectors work together in the cause of cyber defence? And what actions need to be taken once a cyber-attack occurs?

A local cyber researcher from Monash University’s School of Social Sciences stated that over the past few years, the Australian Government has put extensive resources into strengthening cybersecurity. The launch of the Cyber Security Strategy in 2016 and the establishment of the Australian Cyber Security Centre show the government’s determination to contribute to secure cyberspace in Australia.

And as cybersecurity and cybercrime are not limited by borders, the government launched its International Cyber Engagement Strategy to help developing countries, especially countries in the Indo–Pacific region, to strengthen their cyber capacity and cybersecurity. These are all good approaches but they will never be enough, as new technologies keep providing new opportunities for cybercriminals to create new types of cyber threats.

The expert stated that it is important for the government to have a good plan to not only protect critical infrastructure but also to build resilience. Based on his research, this includes a better incident reporting scheme that takes into consideration fears of reputational damage and further auditing requirements as well as providing incentives to encourage reporting.

Sharing knowledge and experience is essential to alert other companies and organisations of the risk and to encourage vigilance and cooperative responses. The expert stated that it is so important that the government should consider a compulsory reporting system. Currently, a voluntary reporting system exists and anyone can report an incident to ACSC, however, this is not mandatory.

Not all cyber-attacks come from state-backed entities. Some are lone-wolf attacks and others are from criminals or groups supporting a particular cause. There is little, if any, risk in fighting back in these circumstances. Taking offensive action against a state-backed foreign cyber-attack might not be ideal if it results in an escalation, and possibly even full-scale cyberwar.

The Australian Government must have the capacity to do this when needed. It might contribute to cyberwar, but just having the capacity for retaliatory action might also be a way to prevent a cyberwar from happening. At the very least Australia needs to maintain an advanced capacity to defend itself from cyber-attacks or cyberwar and be prepared to use it.

When asked what a better incident reporting mechanism would look like, the expert stated that it is important to include industry in the scheme on the same, especially industries related to critical infrastructure. Also, while designing the scheme, it is important to embed ‘safe harbour clauses’ and ways to promote reporting. The current reporting scheme used by the aviation industry to report near misses would be a good model to consider when designing an incident reporting scheme for cyber-attacks.

The Government’s report has several important messages, such as the need for incident reporting and cybersecurity awareness. The current focus on cybersecurity has mainly been on technology, not on human factors. However, human error has been the main factor enabling cyber-attacks and cybercrime. It is important to raise the general public’s cybersecurity awareness.

With regards to cyber skills, the expert suggested that the government invest not only on the science side of cybersecurity but also include professionals from disciplines such as criminology, law, psychology and human behaviour in the Joint Cyber Security Centres to encourage the development of strategies and responses that are both feasible and effective.

An approach to combating cyber-attacks that relies solely on punitive measures will not be successful. And it is important that the government not exaggerate the problem as this can lead to denial, apathy and fatalism. It is also important that messaging around cybersecurity be connected to values other than security alone — values such as the economic benefits of secure infrastructure and online payment systems, for example.

The most important point is that cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility — government, private sector, NGOs and individuals. Cybersecurity is not just a matter for the ASD and the police; it is also about human error and the need for changes to online behaviour.

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