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Foreign spies are learning how to sabotage critical infrastructure, Australian intelligence agency warns

Cyber warfare: The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) is tasked with defending the country against espionage, sabotage, and terrorism. Comparable to the FBI in the US and MI5 in the UK, ASIO has recently been actively working to disrupt a significant cyber-warfare effort by foreign entities.

Australia is facing significant cyber threats from unknown parties, as foreign spies actively attempt to identify weaknesses in the country’s digital infrastructure. According to Mike Burgess, the director-general of ASIO, these spies have conducted multiple scanning attempts to map Australia’s networks, aiming to gather information necessary for potential future attacks on the country.

Burgess recently delivered his annual threat assessment speech, discussing the current and future security landscape of Australia. He highlighted that ASIO, originally created to counter sabotage attempts by Soviet Russia, is now adapting to emerging threats to digital infrastructures. Australia’s critical networks are interconnected and interdependent, making vulnerabilities and potential access points more impactful.

Burgess revealed that ASIO is aware of a particularly active cyber warfare initiative by a specific nation-state, an unnamed country that has been actively scanning critical Australian infrastructures in recent months. These spies have targeted water, transport, and energy networks, employing highly sophisticated reconnaissance technology to test for security vulnerabilities and assess the digital locks of the networks.

The ASIO chief mentioned the significant outage suffered by the telco Optus in November 2023, stating that things could be much worse if multiple operators are targeted. These are not hypothetical incidents, Burgess said, as many foreign governments now have their own “crack cyber teams” working non-stop to explore these kinds of cyber-warfare possibilities.

Burgess said ASIO has been tracking a specific cyber threat against Australian networks, from a group of spies that the intelligence agency has named the “A-Team.” Members of the A-Team infiltrate professional networks in search of interesting Australian profiles, who are then targeted to gain access to privileged or even top-secret information belonging to Canberra authorities.

The A-Team attempted to flatter, bribe, and recruit Australian politicians, academics, and other valuable targets, and their efforts were often successful, as the targets started to provide information about national security and defense priorities. ASIO officers even came into direct confrontation with the A-Team, impersonating a potential target and then revealing their true identity to the foreign spy.

Burgess ultimately emphasized that Australian organizations should be more proactive with their cybersecurity. ASIO will soon publish a new framework designed to help organizations build and maintain a robust security culture.

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