Tobias Feakin, Cyber Ambassador

James Riley
Editorial Director

It is one year since Australia appointed its first Ambassador for Cyber Affairs, and Dr Tobias Feakin – the former Head of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – has well and truly settled into the role.

Dr Feakin isn’t a Lone Ranger. There are about 20 ambassadors around the world covering cyber affairs. It is a growth industry, he says. Certainly in the sometimes obscure echelons of diplomacy, cyber affairs is a hotspot.

Tobias Feakin: Detailing a busy first year as Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Cyber is well recognised as the fifth domain of warfare – following Air, Land, Sea and Space – so it is natural a focus on diplomacy in the cyber sphere would follow.

These are somewhat unchartered waters, not just for Australia, but for the international community as a whole. And this has been the challenge for Dr Feakin in his first year in the role: Specifically in defining Australia’s position on a host of cyber issues and thereby helping to shape the international order. sat down with Dr Feakin at the Fairmont Hotel in Jakarta, on the sidelines of the Austrade-organised Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum.

For a guy who has come out of a thinktank – albeit one with a doctorate in International Politics and Security – to step into an Ambassador level post within a government foreign affairs machine, this most certainly has been a wild ride.

The creation of position of Ambassador for Cyber Affairs was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 as part of the Australian Government’s Cyber Security Strategy launch.

Mr Turnbull’s speech at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney that day was candid. He spoke openly about Australia’s offensive cyber capability for the first time, and he was frank about the ill-defined language around cyber ‘incidents’ in the international diplomatic community.

He raised a thorny issue. If we don’t have international norms of behaviour in the cyber sphere, if we don’t have a standard — commonly understood equation among peers that dictates what kind of aberrant cyber behaviour will attract a specific cyber response — then surely in the fifth domain of warfare we are all flying blind, with potentially dangerous consequences.

When Dr Feakin was appointed to the role in January last year, the thorny issues outlines by the Prime Minister became his project.

In this interview, Dr Feakin talks about the creation of the role, and the work done to define Australia’s position on a range of cyber issues through the development of the International Cyber Engagement Strategy.

This is a foundation document, of sorts, that outlines in quite specific language what Australia stands for, and what its expectations of our international partners in relation to cyber affairs.

Australia has gone further than most in the development of its International Cyber Engagement Strategy, Dr Feakin says.

“Other countries have said ‘This is what we think about the international environment,’ but no other country has gone to the extent of laying down quite clear objectives and also statements about what their country stands for in particular areas,” he said.

“Through this document, we have made quite clear objective statements about ‘If you want to engage with Australia on digital trade, well here are our starters … these are our starting points’.

The document is ambitious and is perhaps straight-forward in a way that Australia’s middle power status allows. The document is launched into an international community in which different countries have different perceptions about what is okay and what isn’t online.

“Be it in election interference, be it the pushing of boundaries on cyber activities that we see in places like Ukraine and further afield, or some of the activity in relation to things like Wannacry … the blurring of state and non-state activity.

“It has reached a concerning level now, where we as a government think that we have to be constructively – in a positive way – trying to set some of the parameters,” Dr Feakin said.

Our discussion with Dr Feakin neatly coincided with the airing of an extraordinary BBC interview with the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo outlining specific cyber threats and where they are coming from.

“What you can see there is an effort by the US to be a little bit more transparent in explaining to the public as to what they see as the problems in the online space,” Dr Feakin said.

“There is now a great deal of discussion about how do we collectively address these kinds of issues. And that’s becoming an increasingly public discussion and it’s one of those difficult questions that my team and I are thinking about right now.”

When you have such a senior public official addressing cyber issues so directly, “it has an incredible impact.”

‘Boundary pushing’ within the international community signals the direct need to establish frameworks for normal behaviours.

“Some states push boundaries,” Dr Feakin says. “And others copy that. And that’s deeply problematic.

“It’s an evolving international relations issue, a legal issue, a normative issue, so we’re trying to grasp on to where the limitations might lie.”

This brings us to the offensive cyber capability. Dr Feakin uses the analogy of a discussion about frigates to describe the discussion. Where the international community will openly discuss frigates – how many they have, or what they are generally capable of – the very specific capability of the asset is kept in the backroom.

“When you’re talking about [cyber] offensive capability, we feel it’s important as a country to be discussing those, so that we can have a rational discussion on the international stage,” Dr Feakin said.

“Because what we have is a range of States that are developing [offensive] capability, but are unwilling to acknowledge or talk about them.

“That’s not a healthy place to be, especially when you have state’s pushing boundaries.

“The more transparent the discussion you can have around the things that are being developed, the more likely we are to get to a point where ‘OK, they are part of a tool-kit, and that there are parameters around how they can and can’t be used.

“As a country, what we have now done – which others have not – is that we have actually now put into policy the legal basis on which we would act, and also the tenets of normative principals we adhere to in cyberspace as well.”

The next big outing for the Ambassador is the ASEAN Special Summit to be held in Sydney next month when the leaders of ASEAN countries will arrive for business and counter-terrorism discussions in which cyber will be a key components. traveled to Jakarta at our own expense to cover the Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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