Cyber security is the “new frontier of warfare” according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he announced unprecedented intelligence briefings for Australian politicians.
Speaking outside the Australian Signals Directorate in Canberra, Mr Turnbull said the organisation would brief political leaders from all parties on cyber vulnerabilities and safety measures when Parliament resumes next month.
But the Opposition has criticised the government of being “irresponsible in the extreme” for taking the news to the media before informing them about these briefings.
The ASD collects and analyses foreign signals intelligence and provides advice and assistance on information and communications security.
In light of Russia’s interference in the recent US election through hacking, Mr Turnbull said incidents like this threaten the “integrity of our political process”.
“Cyber security is at the very forefront of what we are doing to keep Australia safe,” Mr Turnbull said. “This is the new frontier of warfare. It’s the new frontier of espionage. It’s the new frontier of many threats to Australian families, to governments, to businesses.
“Threats like this, from wherever they come, are of great concern to our nation, to our government, to me as Prime Minister. We have to make sure we maintain the integrity of our political process.”
The minister assisting the PM on Cyber Security, Dan Tehan said it’s crucial that cyber safety is ensured for the upcoming state elections this year.
“We have to make sure that they are protected, that when Australians go to vote, they can have confidence that there is no compromise of our electoral system and our democratic process,” Mr Tehan said.
The pair said the weak point in cyber security is usually people, including MPs, and basic steps need to be taken by all, including setting up two-factor authentication.
“A lot of the vulnerabilities are because people do not follow good cyber practice,” Mr Turnbull said.
“They open attachments from sources they are not familiar with. They’re not sufficiently careful in the way they manage their passwords.”
Upon Parliament’s return next month, all political parties will be briefed on these issues by cyber experts for the first time ever.
The media had been reporting the briefing before the Opposition had been informed, breaking “standard national security conventions,” Labor said.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus wrote to the Prime Minister accusing government of being “irresponsible in the extreme” and of using cyber security as a political tool.
“I am very concerned that this issue has been publicised by you directly, including highlighting specific agencies, their functions and target areas considered as vulnerable,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“This is irresponsible in the extreme – Australians have every right to expect their Prime Minister would put national security ahead of their own political purposes. There is no reasonable purpose for the government seeking publicity on details of national security matters such as this.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also said he was “incredibly disappointed” by this at a press conference on Tuesday, but Labor would accept the government’s offer of joint intelligence briefings.
“Malcolm Turnbull must learn to stop playing politics, rushing out trying to get a hurried headline to distract from his lack of a plan on jobs,” Mr Shorten said.
“I mean after the Census fiasco you would have thought this government would have learnt a lesson on important issues like cyber security and not play politics.
“We will sit down and work with the government as we always have, but sometimes Malcolm Turnbull should learn not to play politics and instead just work with the Opposition on something as fundamental as cyber security.”
But the Prime Minister hit back at these criticisms, saying that all politicians and citizens have a right to know about cyber security threats and how to protect from them.
“The threats to our democracy, threats to the integrity of our political system are a matter of concern for every Australian,” Mr Turnbull said. “If that is what the Labor Party is saying that shows, yet again, the shallow opportunism of what they are doing.”
“You can pretend these threats are not there if you like, but that will only make you susceptible to being taken in by them. Alertness, awareness is absolutely critical. We have the means to mitigate the risk. You can’t eliminate it completely but it is very important to take those steps to do so.”
It comes as the Federal Government has increasingly focused on cyber security, including through the establishment of the $31.9 million Australian Cyber Security Growth Network to be led by former Atlassian security director Craig Davies.
“Both federal and state government understand that they do need to get involved in this space for our protection, and for the people they’re responsible for,” Davies told InnovationAus.com.
“Like all countries we’re struggling with the threat of cyber security. Everyone knows we need to do something and I want to turn that something into a very pragmatic thing.”