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Julie Bishop: Australia may join world's biggest …

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by April 27, 2017 General

London: Australia is considering taking part in one of the world’s biggest ‘cyber-war’ exercises – an annual NATO simulation which tests member countries’ digital defences against a massive attack by a foreign power.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop, who visited Operation Locked Shields in Estonia this week, said it had been an “eye-opening” experience.

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She told Fairfax she would send Australia’s new cyber-ambassador Dr Tobias Feakin to Estonia to investigate whether we could get involved in future years.

Locked Shields is a three-day ‘live fire cyber defence exercise’ where 25 countries tested their ability to withstand severe cyber attacks on their electric power grids, fuel supply, military systems (including drones) and communications networks.

Hackers from a fictional country dubbed ‘Crimsonia’ – literally a red menace – mounted an attack on a mocked-up military airbase belonging to NATO ally ‘Berylia’ – using the latest, most dangerous techniques known to be in the toolbox of potential attackers.

Separate teams from each country battled in real time to literally keep the lights on, the airbase functioning and their drone fleet under control.

The exercise also tested how governments would respond to a wave of fake news and disinformation that might accompany such an attack.

NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Talinn has been running the exercise since 2010.

The think tank was set up partly as a response to a 2007 cyber attack on Estonia, when hackers disrupted banking and government systems for weeks during a fierce local debate over the removal of a Soviet war memorial. Many of the attacks originated in Russian computer servers, though Moscow denied any involvement.

Siim Alatalu, head of international relations at the CCDCoE, said it would not be “politically correct” to say that Crimsonia was modelled on Russia.

“I would be challenged to say that Crimsonia reflects Russia,” he said. “It’s really fictional, it’s really hypothetical. Of course everybody knows Russia is a very capable country when it comes to technology… but I would really not say that Crimsonia is Russia.”

The list of ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to cyber-offensive capabilities would depend on who was drawing it up, he said.

“(It) might include Russia, or People’s Republic of China or North Korea. The list … has many different possible members, there are many capable countries all over the world. What we try to do is get the ‘art of the possible’. Whatever could be thought of, we try to test it.”

The simulation was three days of a “whole lot of hacking”, Mr Alatalu said.

“The task of each team is to survive and cope with an amount of attacks which in their normal work they would experience within a year. The amount of attacks is incredible and you need a diverse set of skills to deal with them. They occur in real time, there’s no time to unplug your machine, figure out a recipe then plug it back in. If you fail to maintain the services you are tasked to maintain, you’re in a very bad place.”

This is the kind of attack that could take place in a war, he said.

“All the attacks, they are based on real technology, real people coming up with offensive strategies and tactics. It’s based on real life.

“Somebody is really making you deal with what you might become faced with in due course.”

Locked Shields has doubled in size in just two years. The 2015 edition involved more than 400 people and 16 national teams – this year there were 800 participants from 25 nations.

Ms Bishop told Fairfax that seeing the exercise in action had been an “eye opening” experience – “it really is the next frontier in global challenges,” she said.

“It reinforced my view that we are on the right track making cyber such a priority.”

This month Australia and China reached a new agreement on cyber security, agreeing neither country would conduct or support cyber-crime against the other.

And last November the government established the position of ambassador for cyber affairs, as part of a $230m cyber security strategy.

The minister said that Australia already worked closely on cyber-war strategy with its Five Eyes intelligence allies, but “I still think there are opportunities to expand our engagement”.

She will ask the government’s newly-appointed ambassador for cyber affairs, Dr Tobias Feakin, to visit NATO’s cyber-security centre and discuss how Australia might be able to get involved.

This year countries including Singapore and South Korea sent observers to Locked Shields.

Australia would be welcome to take part in future Locked Shields, Mr Alatalu said – but first we would have to join the NATO CCDCoE as a contributing member.

“It’s really crucial that like-minded nations co-operate together,” he said. “Co-operation in cyber implies that your cyber defenders… they really know each other, they know who to call if they’re faced with a new challenge. That’s the essential benefit for all the participating nations.”

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