Australia’s top security agencies have shone a light on a major cyber security attack attributed to China for the first time.
Earlier this month, Australia joined the US, UK and the EU to attribute an attack on Microsoft Exchange servers to China.
Addressing a parliamentary inquiry on Thursday, Australian Signals Directorate boss Rachel Noble said Beijing had crossed a line.
“What happened … To describe it in plain language, it would be like houses and buildings had faulty locks on the doors. When the Chinese government became aware of those faulty locks on the doors, they went in and they propped all those doors open,” she said.
“What then happened was there was an opportunity for all sorts of criminals, other state actors, you name it, to pour in behind all those propped open doors.”
“It was that action, from a technical point of view, crossed a line.”
Ms Noble said the attack put an estimated 70,000 Australian entities and businesses at risk.
Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo said China’s actions demonstrated a clear blurring of the lines between criminal and state-sponsored cyber attacks.
“Some scholars and experts would contend this as a manifestation of what sometimes is known as hybrid conflict or grey zone activity,” he said.
He argued the incident demonstrated the need for a clear framework for government to determine whether an attack was criminal or equivalent of a military action by a foreign state.
“The risks to Australia’s national interests in the view of the government are too great to not have a clear, established framework in place, ahead of an incident, to operate as a last resort in a national emergency,” he said.
“The clock is ticking … The urgency of this legislation, frankly, I would think is self-evident.”
The powerful parliamentary intelligence and security committee is considering new laws that would define what Australia’s critical infrastructure is and how to protect them from cyber security attacks.
In 2019-20 there were 2266 cyber incidents reported to the Australian Cyber Security Centre.