REFILE-Australia plans cyber defence against increased hacking

Thu Jun 2, 2011 9:12pm EDT

(Refiles to fix typo in headline)

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA, June 3 (Reuters) - Australia will a develop a cyber defence strategy to combat hacking and electronic espionage, the government said on Friday, responding to what it sees as an increased threat after recent cyber attacks on global companies and government officials.

The United States said this week it was assessing whether security had been compromised after Google Inc revealed a major hacker attack targeting U.S. officials that the Internet giant pegged to China.

Google's hacking has fuelled debate in Washington over China's intentions in cyberspace, which the United States has identified as a potential flashpoint for future conflict.

Australia's cyber defence blueprint will confront the growing threat posed by electronic espionage, theft and state-sponsored cyber attack, Attorney-General Robert McClelland and Defence Minister Stepehen Smith said.

"The Cyber White Paper will examine what we need to do to protect ourselves online, the role of government, industry and the public in protecting our interests," McClelland told a cyber security function in Sydney.

The strategy paper, to be completed in the first half of 2012, would look at a broad range of areas including consumer protection, cyber safety, cyber crime, cyber security and cyber defence, McClelland said.

Google announced on Wednesday that suspected Chinese hackers tried to steal passwords of hundreds of Google email account holders, including senior U.S. government officials, Chinese activists and journalists. [ID:nN02296100]

The allegations by the world's largest Web search company sparked an angry response from Beijing, which said blaming China was "unacceptable".

Australia's parliament came under cyber attack in February, with the computers of at least 10 federal ministers including Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, targeted and confidential emails possibly accessed.

Chinese intelligence agencies were among a list of foreign hackers suspected of being behind those raids, which followed similar breaches in France concerning computer network information about the Group of 20 wealthy nations.

McClelland earlier this week urged companies to tighten vigilance over cyber attacks launched offshore against some of the world's biggest resource firms and other businesses, warning high-tech threats were intensifying. [ID:nL3E7GU0CG]

The head of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, Dennis Richardson, told upper house budget hearings on Thursday that his officials were experiencing near daily cyber attacks.

"I doubt whether there would be a 24-hour period in which you wouldn't get something. They can be anything ranging from skilled kids seeing what they can do, to sophisticated hackers getting a kick out of it, through to attempted espionage," said Richardson, a former head of Australia's domestic spy agency.

Australia's former prime minister Kevin Rudd made cyber security a national security priorities in 2009, but the country has not yet followed the lead of close ally the United States and lifted cyber hacking to a sphere of actual war.

But Australian Defence Minister Smith said the cyber threat was "a real, evolving and a growing" test to Australia's national security defences.

"It comes from a wide range of sources, and from adversaries possessing a broad range of skills," he said. (Editing by Ed Davies)