“That was something a bit different,” Australia Thailand Chamber of Commerce president Brenton Mauriello remarked following a 90-minute breakfast session on cyber security issues on the rooftop of Bangkok’s plush Westin Hotel Sukhumvit.
“Sometimes, I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over,” explained Australia’s very different kind of diplomat Tobias Feakin, the impeccably groomed, sparkle-eyed Ambassador for Cyber Affairs told InnovationAus.com after the session was over.
“But then I realise that a lot of this is new to the people I speak to.”
Others in the modestly star-studded room soaking up the ‘new stuff’ included Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand, Paul Robilliard, and Dr Chaichana Mitrpant, the deputy director of Thailand’s Electronic Transactions Development Agency, who was there to update the crow on the Thai government’s ambitious Thailand’s 4.0 plan.
As one cynic noted, the Thailand 4.0 plan aims to make the country the “hub of everything,” creating a host of new digital industries to buttress the country’s fading glory as Southeast Asia’s industrial hub.
But that’s the game these days. If you are not at least trying to be a major player, you are nowhere near it.
Dr Feakin was fresh off the plane from a visit with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall to Singapore, where two deals for greater co-operation in cyber security and scientific research were inked with the very cyber savvy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Dr Feakin said he had spent the previous day in meetings with various Thai Government luminaries, including senior members of the county’s police force, which is being aided by the ever-growing Australian Federal Police presence in the country in how to use digital technology to both prosecute crimes and help secure convictions.
It’s similar work, Dr Feakin said, to that the AFP is also doing with the Indonesian police. The AFP typically works with fellow police forces in Asia on issues around people smuggling and drug smuggling.
Dr Feakin was plucked from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank in 2016 to become Australia’s first Cyber Affairs Ambassador.
“It’s a role that has some equivalents around the world, almost exactly the same role exists in Japan and France,” Dr Feakin said.
“In the UK they have a similar role but it’s exclusively focused on trade, we think there are about 10 countries that have similar type roles but certainly it’s something that sparks up people’s interest wherever I go,” Dr Feakin said.
And while he has been to Europe since becoming ambassador, his first international swing was to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He has also visited islands in the Pacific, his week’s trip top Singapore and Thailand is his second to Asia and he says “my main focus will be on the Asia-Pacific.”
While Dr Feakin has not yet been to China in a diplomatic capacity, he was at pains to explain the cyber cooperation deal with China – which included proposed protection of digital intellectual property – that was criticised when it was signed during the visit to Australia in March by Chinese Premier and Communist Party No 2 Li Keqiang.
“Australia and China agreed that neither country would conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage,” the government said in a statement the time
But Dr Feakin said: “We do go into these things with our eyes wide open” adding that “it’s a fairly unregulated area, and we are focused on the need top build appropriate wording, its important language for our bilateral exchanges, it’s about building language.”
“It’s better than having [a strictly] legal approach about what should and shouldn’t be done. It’s about working out what is important in terms of an international digital strategy.”
In the domestic sphere, Dr Feakin explained that he is one of the key players in the governments over-arching Cyber Security Strategy, which is helmed by the Prime Minister’s cyber policy advisor Alastair McGibbon.
“My job is very much focused on being the bridge to the international side – its part cyber security and part trade,” he noted, and indeed Dr Feakin was talking up Australia’s newfound success in attracting capital for its burgeoning start up sector in recent years – including for cyber startups.
“On the operations side there is Clive Lines who heads the Australian Cyber Security Centre,” Dr Feakin noted. As well, he said, the commercial side was represented by Craig Davis and the Australian Cyber Growth Network.
As noted by InnovationAus.com recently the PM’s Cyber strategy is being revamped.
And while Dr Feakin admitted he was trapped in a Senate Estimates hearing during the PM’s recent roundtable revamp, he was not giving much away.
“We released the strategy over a year ago, things move quickly in this area, you would be surprised if we were not moving ahead.”