Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s melodramatic June 19 emergency media conference was calculated to instil fear in the public about an alleged major cyber attack on Australia by an unspecified “sophisticated state-based actor”.
“This activity is targeting Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure. We know it’s a sophisticated state-based cyber actor because of the scale and nature of the targeting and the tradecraft used.”
The PM gave little other detail about this cyber attack, but under questioning he admitted that the “attack” was more an escalation, over some time, of attempts to penetrate cyber security systems and that there was no significant current disruption.
More information about the nature of this attack was provided in an alert on “Copy-paste compromises” issued the same day by the Australian Cyber Security Centre. The alert explained that “no intent by the actor to carry out any disruptive or destructive activities” was identified.
While the PM did not formally identify the alleged cyber attacker, off-the-record briefings by his staffers led people to believe that it was China that was being blamed. Most of the mainstream media ran with that unsubtle lead and went berserk with another round of Trump-style China-bashing, even though the Chinese government had promptly denied the accusation.
Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese rushed to declare his support for the security agencies.
The context for this attack is the sustained and bluntly racist campaign by the Trump administration to scapegoat China for its own deadly failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. By June 24, the official United States death toll from COVID-19 had reached 121,228 and was still climbing by several hundred a day.
The Australian government jumped in early to support US President Donald Trump in this China scapegoating campaign and, unsurprisingly, China responded by tightening its regulations on imports from Australia and by warning Chinese international students, and other nationals, about the increasing racism against people of Chinese appearance in Australia. The latter is well documented, so the Australian government’s denial has no credibility.
According to mainstream media journalists, the way the Morrison government informally blamed China for this alleged cyber attack was by getting government staffers and “security experts” to list China, Russia and North Korea as the countries that have the cyber offensive capability to carry out an “attack” of this scale.
But there are, at least, five other countries that they did not list that have the capability and are currently engaging in offensive cyber activity of this kind: US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — the countries in the Five Eyes secret intelligence alliance, exposed in 2018 by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The secret agencies of these five states have been colluding for years to conduct mass surveillance on the whole world. Their activities extend beyond surveillance to offensive cyber activity to plant false information and cause disruptions — precisely the dirty “tradecraft” that China is being accused of practising.
The first public disclosure of Australia’s offensive cyber capability was made by former PM Malcolm Turnbull in April 2016. He said the use of this capability would be “subject to stringent legal oversight” and is “consistent with our support for the international rules-based order and our obligations under international law”.
In March last year, Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD — the agency which conducts Australia’s cyber offensive operations) gave a speech that explained more about this offensive capability.
Then Computerworld editor Rohan Pearce reported that Burgess said that the organisation’s offensive operations involve the use of “specialised tools and techniques” to disrupt the communications of adversaries or “interfere with the way they operate online”.
“In my experience, when people think of offensive cyber, they focus on the high-end of the spectrum involving computer network attack operations to destroy an adversary’s communication device,” the ASD head reportedly said.
“Yes, this is something that ASD does, but in very specific circumstances, and within a strict legal framework. But it’s just one of the ways we can disrupt our target’s behaviour online.”
Many of the agency’s operations are far more subtle and sophisticated, according to Burgess.
“For example, our targets may find their communications don’t work at a critical moment – rather than being destroyed completely,” he said. “Or they don’t work in the way they are expecting. Or they might find themselves not able to access their information or accounts precisely when they need to.”
Burgess gave assurances that Australia’s cyber offensive capability would only be used to accomplish a legitimate military or law enforcement purpose, that such operations are proportionate to the objective and that they would not do greater harm than is required to achieve the legitimate military objective.
But the public should have no confidence in these assurances.
Whistleblowing Australian spy “Witness K” and his lawyer Bernard Collaery are currently being prosecuted through secret trials for allegedly exposing the 2004 bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet offices by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) during critical negotiations over oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.
This bugging of a friendly neighbouring country was not done as an act of defence, but to help the giant oil corporations exploiting those resources to rob the impoverished Timorese people.
In ABC’s June 22 Q&A program, former director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Dennis Richardson said: “The government has neither confirmed nor denied any operation in respect of East Timor. Leaving that aside, if an operation was indeed carried out, it would not have been a crime.”
Richardson’s brazen statement revealed the shameless, arrogant and we-are-above-the-law attitude of the secret service chiefs. It underlines that the Australian government acts in the interest of the big corporations and their belief that we should accept this as normal.
Another whistleblower facing a secret trial (and possible life imprisonment) is former Australian army lawyer David McBride who exposed illegal killings of Afghan civilians by Australian special forces.
These are two secret trials that the public knows exist, but there are other secret trials that we have heard little or absolutely nothing about, and perhaps never will.
I was in the small studio audience of seven for this Q&A and I asked the panel this question: “We have accidentally discovered that there was a secret trial of ‘Witness J’ — for what we don’t know. So, what about the secret trials involving Witnesses A-I? Will the public ever know? How many secret trials have there been and what does this say about the state of democracy in Australia?”
Unsurprisingly, there was no response from Richardson to this question. Jacinta Carroll, a “counter-terrorism expert” at the National Security College at the Australian National University, did an extended, but lame, attempt to assure viewers that there is nothing to worry about.
After this Q&A, many viewers were more worried than before about the secret security agencies of Australia and its Five Eyes allies. And so they should be!
[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]