The Australian government has a “right to call out” China on cybersecurity attacks and intellectual property theft, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said.
Mr Dutton launched a scathing attack on China late last week, labelling the Communist Party of China’s values and policies as “inconsistent” with Australia’s, and threatening to publicly attribute cyber attacks to the nation-state.
The comments were swiftly rebuked by the Chinese government, with shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts also criticising them and the federal government’s current confusion around attribution.
Mr Dutton went on the offensive late last week, with comments that the Chinese government labelled as “anti-China rhetoric”.
“We have a very important trading relationship with China, incredibly important, but we’re not going to allow university students to be unduly influenced,” Mr Dutton said.
“We’re not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we’re not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into,” he said.
“My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they’re inconsistent with our own values. In a democracy like ours we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of expression, thought, etc, and if that’s being impinged, if people are operating outside of the law, then whether they’re from China or from any other country, we have a right to call that out.”
The federal government has rarely publicly attributed a cyber attack that impacted Australia businesses, individuals or political parties.
It joined with a number of other countries to attribute a “global campaign of cyber-enabled commercial intellectual property theft” to a group acting on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security late last year, but has typically steered clear of going on the record about who it believes is behind incidents like this.
A number of times it has been leaked to the media when government intelligence agencies believe a nation-state is behind a cyber incident, such as with the recent Australian National University breach and the infiltration of the Australian Parliament network and those of the three largest political parties.
Mr Watts said that while Mr Dutton is “talking tough” on the issue now, it’s impossible to tell whether this marks a significant shift in policy for the government on attribution.
“It’s hard to know what the government’s current approach to attribution is. Dutton variously says in these interviews that the government ‘will’ attribute attacks or that it ‘has the right’ where this is ‘in the national interest’,” Mr Watts tweeted.
Crossbench Senator Rex Patrick used Mr Dutton’s comments to make a renewed push for an inquiry into Australia’s relations with China.
“Mr Dutton’s remarks would be more credible if they were accompanied by greater candour about the full dimensions of foreign political interference in Australia and by a preparedness to support more open parliamentary inquiry and debate on Australia’s relations with China,” Senator Patrick said.
“For example, Mr Dutton says the Morrison government will call out state-based foreign interference and that ‘we won’t allow our government bodies or our non-government bodies to be hacked into’,” he said.
“Yet, despite my questions in the senate, the government has still not acknowledged that the Chinese government hacked the Australian parliament’s computer network, as reported by Reuters.”
It was reported in September that the Australian Signals Directorate had determined that China’s Ministry of State Security was responsible for a “sophisticated” cyber attack on the Parliament’s network and those of Australia’s three largest political parties.”
The report said that the government has known of this since March but is still yet to go public with this attribution.
The federal government should make it a routine of publicly-attributing these sort of cyber attacks, Australian Strategic Policy Institute International Cyber Policy Centre director Fergus Hanson said.
“We haven’t reached that point of making the attribution to China ourselves, and that’s a bit of a shame. Without being able to do that you can’t create deterrents, and you’re left with a permissive environment,” Mr Hanson told InnovationAus.com last month.
“It’s signalling that you’re not confident to make the declaration, and that effectively creates an overall permissive environment,” she said.
“We need to make it routine to do attributions in serious cases, and we should be country-agnostic about it. We’ve done it for Russia and North Korea, there’s no reason we can’t do it for China. We need to make it routine.
“The first one is a bit of a threshold to get over, but we need to do it as standard practice and call them out. We need to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable.”