Computer Crime Research Center


Warning on cyber terrorism

Date: February 23, 2004
Source: The Age
By: Sue Cant

Australia's critical information infrastructure is still vulnerable to cyber attack, with the communications network underpinning the $50 billion Chinese gas deal particularly "fragile", a former defence department strategist warns.
Dr Adam Cobb, who warned of Australia's key vulnerabilities to information attack in 1999, says Australia is still wide open.

Cobb, who runs a private security think tank, Stratwise Strategic Intelligence, has written an assessment on Australia for a global report on critical infrastructure produced by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.

"Australia has significant vulnerabilities across its critical infrastructure," Cobb writes.

"While the general terrorist threat against Australia has increased dramatically, it remains to be seen to what extent groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah will turn to cyber attack as a modus operandi."

Cobb highlights concerns about many of Australia's assets relying on vulnerable infrastructure, including the plan to export gas and oil from the North-West Shelf to China.

"The resources for this historic deal will be extracted in one of Australia's most remote, exposed and infrastructure-poor regions, the North-West Shelf.

"The deal with China is of national significance but rests on a very fragile basis," Cobb says.

He says the maritime oilfields are spread over a vast stretch of sea thousands of kilometres from Perth and far from major defence bases.

"The regional communications network has very little redundancy and its fuel distribution system almost none.

"The North-West Shelf is Australia's most critical infrastructure in terms of both vulnerability and value."

In his report in 1999, Cobb warned the Federal Government it must act to protect networks from crime, accidents, natural disasters, malicious attacks on commercial or military espionage or user error.

His paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: Australian Vulnerabilities to High-Tech Risks, warned of a revolution in military affairs with traditional weapons increasingly irrelevant in "proportion to the growing centrality of the information dependence of civil society".

"This development is ushering in a new era where protection of critical infrastructure will be the key to economic success and national security," the paper says. "Indeed in some respects such an attack could be far more harmful to the stability and capacity of a society to function than an attack on the armed forces of the states, because it disrupts or destroys the most fundamental infrastructural elements upon which modern society depend. It is the electronic equivalent of total war."

The 1999 assessment warned of a September 11-type scenario where hijacked airliners could be used on suicide missions.

The proposition was considered so "outrageous and alarmist at the time that it was edited out of subsequent editions of the paper", Cobb says in the Zurich report.

But Cobb says while the low-threat environment shifted with September 11, the Federal Government's funding commitments to cyber terrorism were too "trivial".

"They reflect the Government's continuing scepticism about the possibility of cyber attack but also the fact that government has a limited `moral leadership' role to play insofar as Australia's critical infrastructure is operated almost entirely by private companies."
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