Does Australia need to step up its cyber security efforts?
Cyber crime poses a huge threat to developed nations around the world, from computer viruses, phishing scams and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to cyber terrorism and cyber warfare. It's why governments are investing millions into tackling cyber crime; developing national strategies, setting up specialist units and collaborating with the police and the IT industry in response to this growing challenge.
Cyber crime can have a significant detrimental effect on a nation's economy. Not only can it lead to big losses for businesses and government departments, it can also have a reputational impact, making the country less attractive as a place to do business.
Unfortunately, the reality is that cyber criminals are usually one step ahead. But it is true that some countries perform better at tackling cyber crime than others, and there have been concerns over whether Australia is doing everything it could to protect its citizens, its business community and its governmental and public bodies.
Australia 'lagging behind' on cyber security
There have been several warnings about the strength of Australia's cyber security capabilities in recent years, with one of the latest coming from the country's national science agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
In a report titled Australia's Digital Future: Cyber Security Trends and Implications, it warned that because of rapid digitalisation across Australia, the volume, speed and severity of cyber attacks is likely to increase substantially unless the country is able to ramp up its defences against internet crime.
It suggested that future attacks could make last year's Heartbleed scare seem fairly tame in comparison, with mass blackouts, prolonged online outages and widespread incidents of fraud involving health records and taxation data all possible if Australia fails to take action now.
Another recent report, this time examining the risks cyber crime poses to Australia's financial system, concluded that the country's national Cyber Security Strategy (CSS) is out of date and is lagging behind other nations such as the US, the UK, France, Germany and Singapore.
The Financial System Inquiry called on the government to review and update the CSS, which was implemented in 2009, to take account of the new and rapidly changing cyber threats facing the country. It also advocates better cohesion and coordination between public and private sector organisations on the implementation of cyber security policies.
Australia's vulnerability to cyber attacks
Australia's vulnerability to cyber attacks compared to other developed nations around the world has been highlighted by two recent surveys, which demonstrate the impact on both businesses and on ordinary citizens in the country.
According to research carried out by BT Security, some 64 per cent of Australian companies have been hit by DDoS attacks in the last 12 months, causing system crashes that have lasted for at least six hours. This was the highest percentage out of all 11 of the geographical areas measured in the report and compares to a global average of 41 per cent.
"Organisations all over the world are increasingly experiencing disruptive cyber attacks, especially DDoS attacks, but it has now become clear that Australia is being hit the hardest," said Kevin Taylor, president of BT Global Services for Asia, the Middle East and Africa in an article for Technology Spectator.
Meanwhile, a new report from Trend Micro has shown that Australian internet users are more likely to fall victim to ransomware than those elsewhere around the developed world based on the size of the country's population and the number of incidents reported.
Indeed, Australia accounted for five per cent of ransomware attacks in Trend Micro's Security Roundup for the first quarter of 2014, even though it has a population of just 23 million. Germany, with a population of 82 million, accounted for four per cent of infections and France, with 66 million people, accounted for two per cent.
Other countries did record a higher number of incidents, but their populations are also substantially larger than Australia's. For example, the US accounted for 28 per cent of attacks, but it has a population of 314 million, while Japan has a population of 128 million and accounted for 22 per cent.
A need for cyber security talent
It has become clear that Australia needs to do more on cyber crime prevention, but does the country have enough skilled IT professionals to help it take up the challenge? The answer appears to be no. Australia's chief scientist Ian Chubb has been warning for some time now that there are not enough students studying IT-related degrees, and that this could lead to a significant skills shortage.
And earlier this year, National ICT Australia claimed the country could "miss the chance to build an internationally competitive cyber security industry if it doesn't move quickly to foster an agile ecosystem that would create market opportunities and challenging careers for our best computer scientists and software engineers".
This is why the University of New South Wales in Canberra has opened the Australia Centre for Cyber Security at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) campus, where undergraduate and post-doctoral programmes will be available and where researchers will work tirelessly to help protect the country from the kind of cyber security threats that pose a serious risk to national security.
Launching the facility, assistant minister for defence, Stuart Robert, said: "The centre's research will cover issues such as cyber ethics, law and justice as well as those issues that affect the everyday lives of people and businesses, such as computer and network security."
He added: "We are lucky to have this centre located at ADFA where our future leaders will have access to state-of-the-art research on this significant issue."
But creating a new army of cyber security experts may take time, and Australia needs them now, which is why the country presents such an exciting opportunity for professionals who already possess the kind of skills and experience that are needed within Australia's IT industry.