ASIO has warned of the “unprecedented” scale of the threat of foreign influence as Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed Australia’s major political parties have suffered a cyber attack by a “sophisticated state actor”.
Speculation has turned swiftly to China as being potentially responsible for the attack, which was first revealed as targeting Parliament House computer networks.
“The current scale foreign intelligence agency activity against Australian interests is unprecedented. Hostile intelligence activity poses a real and existential threat to Australian security and sovereignty,” ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis told Senate estimates on Monday.
“The harm from this threat may not manifest itself for many years.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister told Parliament on Monday that it was now known that the Liberal Party, Labor Party and the Nationals were also targeted.
The Morrison government has not publicly stated that the chief suspect is China.
“Our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,’’ he said.
“Our security agencies have detected this activity and acted decisively to confront it. They are securing these systems and protecting users.”
While the cyber attacks appear to have all the hallmarks of the attacks against the United States by Russia – when the Democratic National Committee was hacked – Mr Morrison said there was no evidence to date that this was the case.
“Let me be clear though, there is no evidence of any electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to ensure the integrity of our electoral system,’’ the PM said.
“I have instructed the Australian Cyber Security Centre to be ready to provide any political party or electoral body in Australia with immediate support, including making their technical experts available.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten said “our party-political structures are perhaps more vulnerable and we have seen overseas that it is progressive parties which are more likely to be targeted by ultra-right wing organisations.”
“These institutions can be a soft target and our national approach to cybersecurity needs to pay more attention to non-government organisations.
“Our agencies should not just be providing advice to political parties but actively assisting in their defence,” he said.
ASIO also moved yesterday to reject reports “wrongly asserting that the Chinese community is a target for ASIO”.
It followed weekend reports over the saga of Huang Xiangmo, a big political donor who has had his permanent residency stripped from him.
“In Australia we have many millions of residents from many ethnic backgrounds,” Mr Lewis told Senate estimates.
It’s critical that we avoid commentary that will instil fear and taint such a community which makes such a positive contribution to Australian life.
“And as the director-general of intelligence I can say categorically that from a security point of view the overwhelming majority of people of Chinese heritage are of no investigate interest to ASIO. We should not impugn the many for the actions of a few.”
The computer networks of Australia’s major political parties were also part of a sophisticated cyber attack by a “state actor” that affected the networks of federal parliament, the prime minister has confirmed.