Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been briefed on Australia’s cyber security capabilities by one of the nation’s top spy agencies, as he prepares to brief his political opponents on how to protect themselves from cyber attacks in the wake of the U.S. election.
Turnbull and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cyber Security Dan Tehan toured the DSD building in Canberra on Tuesday and receive a cyber-security briefing, before party leaders are invited to a similar briefing when parliament returns next month.
“There has been evidence of Russian efforts to influence the recent American election and this is acknowledged now on all sides,” Turnbull said on Tuesday.
“It was controversial for a while politically in the United States but it is acknowledged that there was Russian interference both in terms of hacking and in terms of seeking to influence the election through so-called fake news.
“Threats like this from wherever they come are of great concern to our nation, to our Government, to me as prime minister.”
The prime minister said however he was not aware of evidence in recent times that a foreign country had sought to influence an Australian election in the way “that has been described in the United States.”
There will be a full briefing by cyber experts to other political parties and political leaders when parliament returns, Turnbull said.
In early January the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency concluded in a report that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election with the goal of helping President-elect Donald Trump win.
The authors of the report argued Moscow is responsible for last year’s cyberattacks directed at the Democratic National Committee, and that Russian spies gained access to DNC networks in July 2015 and maintained access until at least June 2016.
Russian intelligence services had conducted cyberattacks against targets associated with both the Democratic and Republican parties, the intelligence agencies found.
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cyber Security Dan Tehan told Sky News another purpose of the briefing was to give MP’s advice about what they need to do protect Australia’s democratic system.
“The prime minister very much sees this as above politics,” Tehan said.
“This is about protecting democracy in Australia.”
Later, Tehan warned the government had to ensure state elections coming up in 2017 were “protected”.
“That when Australians go to vote, they can have confidence that there is no compromise of our electoral system and the democratic process,” he said.
‘No direct evidence anyone is hacking parties’
Australian’s politicians are vulnerable, said Liam Neville from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
“What Russia showed us is it is possible to influence opinion, in one way or another, though whether they were successful or not is up for debate,” he told The ABC on Tuesday morning.
“Especially in a parliament like Australia’s at the moment, where one or two people can change the nature of the government, if you can get information on a few key people you can completely change the political nature of our government.
“There’s obviously a big vulnerability there.”
He said there is no direct evidence so far that someone has gone after the major parties, however he said it was interesting to note a number of politicians were caught up in the recent Yahoo email leak.
“Obviously there’s some possibility that people are going after individuals through leaks like that,” he said.
“But at the moment it’s more conceptual risk, that clearly there is evidence people have tried to do this and have some success at doing this, so you’d want to mitigate now, rather than see direct evidence of it happening.”
Departments have been targeted
In August last year the privacy commissioner blamed four “malicious” attacks from foreign hackers for the Census debacle that saw the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shut down the Census website.
That same month, a Four Corners investigation revealed Austrade and the Defence Department’s elite Defence Science Technology Group had both been the targets of cyber infiltrations in the past five years by China based hackers.
At the time, Turnbull launched a $230 million cyber security strategy to deal with what he called an ‘unprecedented’ level of malicious cyber activity targeting Australia.