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Sunday, 14 April 2019 18:21

ASD says 'sophisticated, state actor' behind Parliament attack Featured

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ASD says 'sophisticated, state actor' behind Parliament attack Pixabay

The Australian Signals Directorate has ascertained that hackers who breached the networks of the Australian Parliament and those of three main political parties — Liberal, Labor and National — are nation-state actors, but the agency's director-general, Mike Burgess, has said he cannot name the country involved in a public forum.

Burgess told the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on 5 April that the attackers had exfiltrated a small amount of data.

Asked whether the ASD had identified whether it was a state actor, Burgess said: "The level of sophistication here leads us to believe it has to be a state actor. That's our assessment. Of course, that could still be just a very, very clever individual, but we think that's highly unlikely."

He said the question of calling out any country for the attack was a matter for the government, once the ASD had presented its assessment.

In response to a question as to whether any confidential correspondence or information had been compromised, Burgess said: "There was a small amount of data taken; none of that was deemed sensitive, but the assessment of that is a matter for the parliament themselves."

The intrusion was made public on 8 February. On 24 March, the ASD told iTWire in response to queries that the investigation was still ongoing.

Burgess told the parliamentary panel that the damage assessment from the intrusion had been completed and the intruder or intruders had been fully evicted.

Questioned about whether any country would be called out for being behind the attack, Burgess replied: "Attribution is a really difficult thing, so tying it down to a particular country, a particular organisation, and perhaps particular individuals, is a piece of work that takes considerable time. Even if we got to that point, whether that got called out or not is a matter for other organisations — the government — not for the Australian Signals Directorate.

"I would say, though, that if you do get to the point of knowing who it is, sometimes you have an option of calling it out, and the Australian Government has taken action previously to call out state actors for known problems – that's an intent to call out inappropriate behaviour.

"Sometimes, however, there might be other reasons why you don't call it out, but I'll end with attribution: to get to the point where you could prove it in a court of law is terribly difficult."

There were competing claims at the time of the breach, with some organisations, like the ABC, blaming China, while Resecurity, a security outfit in the US, blamed Iran.

Resecurity said an Iranian-linked entity had been responsible for the network attack, adding that it had informed the ASD about its findings and claiming the agency had confirmed this attribution.

But the credentials of Resecurity came under question shortly thereafter, with journalists and technical researchers both citing what they saw as irregularities about its approach. The firm had also blamed Iran for a network attack on multinational software company, Citrix Systems.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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