Credits: ABC News
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has warned that the internet and cyber security are now so central to modern nations that serious hacking incidents could escalate into war.
Senator Payne, during an address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, noted that Australia had recently suffered its own serious assault on democratic institutions in the form of hack attacks on Parliament and the major political parties.
She said that hackers were increasingly exploiting a “grey zone” by attacking in ways that international law and agreed global standards had not yet caught up with.
“It is now so fundamental to modern life that serious cyber incidents could, if mismanaged, escalate to a form of conflict between states. There is a behavioural grey zone in cyberspace, that unfortunately more actors appear willing to exploit,” she said.
“That is why we need greater clarity on the application of international law in cyberspace.”
The Chinese government is regarded as the chief suspect in the recent cyber attacks on political institutions, though Senator Payne said Australian authorities were still investigating to determine who was responsible.
She did not commit to publicly naming the country if it can be proven to be behind the attack, though she said so-called “attribution” was important to deter future attacks.
“Attribution brings welcome public attention to these issues. It brings further attention, potentially embarrassment, for the offending actor,” she said.
Australia is hoping to take part in two major United Nations panels this year to cement clearer rules on countries’ behaviour in cyber space. National security experts have long warned that “grey” areas in international affairs are making it easier for some countries to misbehave and this risks increasing global tensions.
Australia’s ambassador for cyber affairs, Tobias Feakin, told the gathering the UN panels would focus on “stating what the rules are around that grey space”.
“Anything below the level of armed conflict [is] where the grey space exists. That’s what’s being exploited mercilessly by a whole range of countries,” he said.
Dr Feakin said some other countries had very different ideas about how the internet should look and work. This was leading to rising competition in the cyber realm.
“Absolutely it’s getting warmer … there is no doubt that we’re in a hotly contested area,” he said.
“There are countries that have a very state-centric view of how these things should be done, with a very different view of how human rights is interpreted in the online space … We do live in an incredibly contested environment.”