- US Justice Department announced indictment alleging two Chinese hackers behind Australia’s cyber- attack.
- The hackers are alleged to be contractors for the Chinese government, rather than full-fledged spies.
- Cyber-security attacks were mainly on defence contractors, solar energy engineering firm, COVID-19 vaccine researchers and drug companies.
- Australian Intelligence Agency to tackle disinformation along with cyber-attacks.
Last month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the country would spend A$1 bn in next ten years on cyber defence. This is to combat the threat posed by what appears to be “waves of attacks” suffered by the country.
The funds will be utilised for disrupting offshore cyber-crime. There is also a plea to strengthen intelligence sharing between the Government and the industry. The cybersecurity agency also plans to develop better technology to deal with future attacks swiftly.
The Government also plans to hire 500 more cybersecurity experts costing additional A$470 mn. The cybersecurity specialists will work for the country’s cyber-intelligence agency - Australian Cyber Security Centre.
In total, the A$15 bn funding will be invested to increase the country’s cyber warfare capabilities, which includes cyber and information warfare. This plan was expedited after an electronic attack on Australia’s parliament and the three largest political parties in 2019.
Chinese Attack on AU Defence Contractor
In an explosive revelation, the US Justice Department stated that two Chinese hackers, infiltrated the Australian defence contractor’s web server. The hackers stole a significant number of documents, including source code for the company's products.
The US government also accused hackers of compromising network of a solar energy engineering firm in Australia.
In the initial reports, Australia did not reveal the suspects, but the sources confirmed China to be responsible behind the series of cyber-attacks. Country’s intelligence agencies quietly determined the same.
Australian health and research data is a new interest for hackers. FBI also accused China of trying to hack into universities and drug companies working on possible COVID-19 vaccines.
The US Justice Department claimed Australia as one of the casualties of decade-long cyber espionage campaign which stole secrets from COVID-19 vaccine researchers, drug companies and defence firms.
As per the indictment unveiled, two hackers name have come out, Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi. Both of them stole terabytes of weapon designs, drug data and software source code. They even hacked personal data from dissidents and Hong Kong protesters.
According to the US officials, the hackers are alleged to be contractors for the Chinese government, rather than full-fledged spies.
John Demer, the US assistant attorney general for national security said, with this act, China shows willingness to turn a blind eye to prolific criminal hackers operating within its borders.
Australia’s Cyber- Attack Tale
A recent study conducted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies shows Australia is on the sixth rank, with 16 significant cyber-attacks in the period between 2006 to 2020. The US came in first place with 165 cyber-attacks during the same timeframe. The UK in second place with 47, while India in third with 23 cyber-attacks. Germany follows them with 21 and South Korea with 18 attacks.
The study reveals that attacks steal data from government agencies, defence and high-tech companies, and also commit economic crimes with countries suffering losses of more than a million dollars.
Australian mining corporations, defence contractors and Government agencies are in the main list of targets. So, when the Government and private sector networks crippled during the last cyber-attack, a much-needed boost to cybersecurity was announced.
In May 2020, a suspected PLA hacking group targeted government-owned companies, foreign affairs ministries, and science and technology ministries across not just in Australia but in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Brunei.
According to CSIS, in March 2020, a group of Chinese hackers targeted over 75 organizations around the world. While the manufacturing, media, healthcare, and nonprofit sectors were the main targets as part of a broad-ranging cyber espionage campaign.
Over the revelation of indictments content, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Home Affairs has expressed grave concerns.
More About Hackers
Hackers Li and Dong studied electrical engineering from Chengdu, China. The trade secrets, intellectual property and other valuable business information which they stole are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Australian defence contractor who fell victim for the cyber-attack lost about 320 gigabytes of documents. The attack took place last year in April and June. The hackers assigned a fake China Chopper web shell, which enabled remote access to web servers and uploading of credential-stealing software.
Similarly, in the case of a hacking attack on an Australian solar energy company in January, Li used a China Chopper web shell to access the company’s network.
For around ten years, both the hackers have attacked countries like United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. They are citizenss and residents of China.
Action Plan Against Malicious Cyber Tactics
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said the Chinese MSS and its proxies would face severe consequences if they continue to use malicious cyber tactics to either steal what they cannot create or silence what they do not want to hear. He said, the Chinese government’s intelligence services threatens not just the United States but also every other country to play fair.
These alleged hackers operated from China are now facing various charges, including conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets, and aggravated identity theft. Numerous victims from around the world cooperated and provided valuable assistance in the investigation.
China instigating disinformation campaign against Australia is another reason to strengthen the current cybersecurity. United States Studies Centre at Sydney University reveals China uses its "wolf warrior diplomats" through social media and state-run-media to propagate false narratives. For Australia, this disinformation mechanism was used to discredit the country’s foreign policy. This was an apparent attempt to weaken the public support for the coalition government.
These tactics aim to propagate the false narrative amplifying that the United States is behind the fragile Australia-China diplomatic relations. A think-tank believes Australia and the US wish to safeguard their computer networks and to counter disinformation, they need to step-up co-operation. They also suggest two countries to bring Japan in to work more closely on development in the Pacific.