Australian spy agency OK'd for cyberattacks on offshore criminal networks

Offensive capabilities can be unleashed on cyber crimes overseas.

By George Nott
July 3, 2017


The Australian Signals Directorate has been cleared to use its offensive cyber capabilities to target “organised offshore cyber criminal networks”, the government announced last week.

“The use of offensive cyber capabilities is one of the options the Government is pursuing as part of a broader strategy to prevent and shut down safe havens for offshore cyber criminals,” the minister assisting the prime minister for cyber security, Dan Tehan, said this morning.

Tehan said that while ASD’s offensive capabilities had been targeted previously at terrorists, this was the first time it had been directed to attack foreign criminal networks.

Questioned about the risks of provoking other nations by targeting the criminals they harboured, Tehan said the risk of inaction was greater.

“The only risk that we run is if we are not investing in this capability, if we are not giving our military intelligence the capability to be able to act is that we make ourselves less secure. This is all about ensuring the nation's security,” he said.

Any offensive actions would be subject to stringent legal oversight and consistent with International Rules-based order and Australia’s obligations under international law, Tehan added.


Front foot

The ASD’s “offensive cyber capability” was first acknowledged in April last year, during the launch of the government’s cyber security strategy.

In November, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told parliament that those capabilities were supporting offensive operations against Islamic State.

The ASD’s capabilities “provide us with the capacity to deter and respond to cyber attacks against Australia,” Turnbull explained at the time.

In July last year, the ASD launched a recruitment campaign to help boost the government’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.

The agency sought offensive cyber operators, penetration testers, software developers, vulnerability researchers, and network and system admins.

“The positions include specialists to help develop Australia’s offensive cyber capability to deny, degrade or disrupt adversaries if they try to attack Australian computers or networks,” a Department of Defence spokesperson told Computerworld Australia at the time.

The clearance to target criminals was part of an effort to keep the nation’s businesses, citizens and governments secure, Tehan said today.

“We have to make sure that we are keeping the mums and dads, the small businesses, the large businesses, government departments and agencies secure in this nation and that is why we have made this direction to the Australian Signals Directorate,” he said.