Australian government forms joint taskforce to prevent cyber attacks

By on 15/11/2022 | Updated on 15/11/2022
A hooded figured with code emerging from a hidden face

The Australian government is set to launch a joint taskforce whose job will be to target hackers before they launch cyber attacks risking key public service systems and citizen data.

The taskforce is expected to comprise 100 police and defence personnel across the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Signals Directorate and will be financed through existing funds. The focus of the team will be the activities of ransomware groups, who specialise in stealing data which is then used as leverage to extort money.

“Around the world, governments are stepping up and arming up in this fight, and the Australian government is joining them,” said Clare O’Neil, Australia’s minister for cyber security, last weekend.

By gathering intelligence, pinpointing ringleaders of hacker networks and identifying the infrastructure they use, the government aims to stop ransomware groups in their tracks, ensuring that each is “hunted down and their networks disrupted”, as O’Neil said.

Upcoming webinar: Last line of defence: how to protect government data from cyber attacks

The move to fortify the country against online attacks was prompted by a data breach earlier this year in which hackers posted sensitive data relating to mental health treatment received by customers of Medibank, Australia’s largest private health insurer.

The hackers, who the Australian government linked to Russian cyber-criminals with connections to the REvil cyber gang, posted another file containing 500 mental illness diagnoses and other records was posted on its dark web site this week.

REvil, also known as ‘Sodinokibi’, is Russian-speaking so;called ‘ransomware-as-a-service’ outfit. The gang have a history of threatening to publish stolen information unless they are paid a ransom. Last year, it obtained confidential product information from the tech giant Apple, though later deleted all reference to the extortion attempt from its site.

This attack prompted the US Department of Justice to launch a similar taskforce.

Strengthening global defences

In a statement released this month by Reece Kershaw, Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner, the AFP has six members working in five countries to combat cybercrime, including the Netherlands, Serbia, South Africa, the UK and the US. Kershaw added that a project led by AFP, named Operation ORCUS, managed to disrupt 13 would-be ransomware attacks against Australian businesses from July to September this year.

In January 2022, the Russian Federal Security Service claimed REvil had “ceased to exist” after dismantling the group and placing some of its members under arrest. However, Mark Dreyfus, attorney-general said the government would continue to look closely at Russia’s diplomatic profile.

Read more: Safety in numbers: making sure all public servants have the cyber security skills they need

“The taskforce would work with international partners, including the FBI and Interpol, and called on other nations to do the same,” he said.

Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese said he had authorised the release of AFP information on where the Medibank hack had originated, stressing that such all attacks must be condemned.

“We know where they’re coming from, we know who is responsible, and we say that they should be held to account,” Albanese said

“The nation where these attacks are coming from should also be held accountable for the disgusting attacks, and the release of information including very private and personal information.”

In 2020, the then-Liberal–National coalition government in Australia published a three-pronged plan to protect Australia from cyber attacks. The AUD$1.67bn (US$1.12bn) plan was launched to bolster protection against cyber attacks targeting Australia’s government, businesses and the public.

The 10-year Cyber Security Strategy 2020 replaced a AUS$230m (US$155m) strategy drawn up in 2016, which established the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Joint Cyber Security Centres to foster collaboration between state and territory governments and industry.

Read more: Major review of Australia’s government service platform launched

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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