Sydney – Australia’s prime minister said Friday his country was under a broad cyberattack from a “state-based actor” targeting government, public services and businesses, with suspicions falling on China.
Warning Australians of “specific risks” and an increased frequency of attacks, Scott Morrison told a hastily organized news conference that a range of sensitive institutions had been hit.
“This activity is targeting Australian organizations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organizations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure,” he said.
He leveled blame at a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor,” but declined to name the culprit, saying only that it could only come from one of a handful of states.
China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, the United States and a number of European countries are known to have developed cyberwarfare capabilities.
Suspicions immediately fell on Beijing, which has recently slapped trade sanctions on Australian products amid an escalating row over Chinese influence.
Public broadcaster ABC cited “senior sources” confirming that China was believed to be behind the attacks.
Australia enraged China by calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and by accusing China of fueling a virus “infodemic” and engaging in economic “coercion.”
China — increasingly unwilling to tolerate criticism of its more aggressive foreign policies — has warned its students and tourists against going to Australia, threatened more sanctions and sentenced an Australian citizen to death for drug trafficking.
Beijing and Canberra have also sparred over access to natural resources, maritime claims and the use of Chinese state-backed technology companies.
Last year Australia’s Parliament and political parties were targeted by state-backed actors, with China seen as the likely culprit.
Beijing has previously described such comments as “irresponsible” speculation and an attempt to “smear” the country.
Experts say attribution is often difficult, time-consuming and, if made public, could escalate tensions further.
Canberra’s ex-spymaster last year accused Beijing of wanting to “take over” Australia’s political system with an “insidious” and systematic campaign of espionage and influence-peddling.
Duncan Lewis, who resigned in September after five years as head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), explicitly pointed the finger at China, in unusually blunt comments from such a senior former official.
“Espionage and foreign interference is insidious,” Lewis told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time.
Morrison said that he had notified the leader of the opposition and state leaders of the cyberattacks, which he described as “malicious”.
He did not elaborate on what type of attacks had taken place, but said no personal data had been compromised and many of the attacks were unsuccessful.
“They are not new risks, but they are specific risks,” he said, urging Australian firms and institutions to protect themselves.
“We encourage organizations, particularly those in the health, critical infrastructure and essential services to take expert advice and to implement technical defenses,” he said.
That warning is likely to raise alarm bells as the country’s medical facilities — already on crisis footing because of the coronavirus pandemic — could come under further strain.
Australia is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network — along with Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States — which gives the country access to advanced capabilities, but also makes it a rich target for adversaries.