Australia under ‘malicious’ cyberattacks from state actor

Prime Minister Scott Morrison put the blame on a sophisticated state-based cyber actor. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 June 2020

Australia under ‘malicious’ cyberattacks from state actor

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 press 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 levelled 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 Organization (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 give the country access to advanced capabilities, but also makes it a rich target for adversaries.

Pakistan rolls out coronavirus surveillance app for incoming travelers

Updated 8 min 58 sec ago

Pakistan rolls out coronavirus surveillance app for incoming travelers

  • 246,351 cases registered since late February

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has developed a mobile app to keep track of travelers entering the country through land routes and airports to ensure a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for those testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

“The app will be rolled out in a few days,” Shabahat Ali Shah, CEO of the National Information Technology Board (NITB), told Arab News this week.

He said the app would help record symptoms of the incoming travelers and keep track of their location. It would also communicate coronavirus test results to them and check if they were violating the self-quarantine requirement.

The government was testing everyone entering the country until recently. Many travelers were kept at big isolation centers established in hotels and marquees for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.

According to government officials, the new app will eliminate the costs associated with the old quarantine protocols and maintain a better record of people’s movements.

Pakistan has registered 246,351 coronavirus infections since late February and over 5,000 deaths.

The government has also been carrying out contact tracing to test suspected cases and sent over half-a-million text messages to those who have come into close contact with COVID-19 patients, according to the Ministry of National Health Services.

“We don’t share contact tracing numbers with the public since they keep changing on a daily basis,” Shah said, adding that people suspected to have the disease were requested to get themselves tested.

Discussing the projections, he said the numbers of coronavirus cases would keep changing but that the government’s actions had proved successful in bringing down the country’s infection rate.

“Smart lockdowns in different areas have helped reduce the disease,” Shah said, adding the decision to lock down virus hotspots was taken on the basis of data collected by the NITB.

He said that the COVID-19 curve would flatten if the government properly managed Eid Al-Adha and Muharram processions in the coming months.

According to independent IT analysts, the app would prove ineffective if “big data” was not properly analyzed.

“Developing an app is not a big deal,” Mustaneer Abdullah, an IT expert, told Arab News. “The real task is to extract useful information through the algorithms and break it down in specific categories to achieve the desired targets. The trouble is that government departments lack that kind of expertise.”

He also pointed out that such apps were hazardous to public privacy in the absence of data protection laws since they sought permission from users at the time of installation to access their photo galleries, locations and contact lists to work smoothly.

“The data collected through these apps can also be a goldmine for scoundrels. People working with government departments could leak user information to digital marketers or fraudsters with total impunity.”