Australia to deploy roving teams of cyber experts across Pacific

The Australian government has announced it will set up roving teams of cyber experts to help Pacific Island nations deal with the growing online threats posed by criminal organisations and hostile states.

Australian officials have become increasingly worried about the Pacific's vulnerability to cyber attacks, even as they face mounting questions about Australia's own capacity to deter criminal organisations and foreign governments targeting critical infrastructure, businesses and households across the country.

Last year, Australian experts flew to Vanuatu to help the country deal with a ransomware attack that crippled many of its government departments, forcing some officials and hospital workers to resort to using pen and paper.

Papua New Guinea was also hit with a ransomware attack in 2021 that targeted government pay systems, while Tonga's state-owned telecommunications company was hit earlier this year.

Last month, Fiji's Deputy Prime Minister Manoa Kamikamica said cyber crime was an "increasing threat to our administrations" across the Pacific.

"It is a sad fact that everyday, thousands of criminals go to work with the sole intention of inflicting harm on innocent people across the globe, including here in the Blue Pacific Continent," he said.

"We cannot, and will not, let them win."

Now, the federal government has pledged $26 million under its new cyber security strategy to set up "rapid assistance" teams to "help respond to cyber crises as they happen in the Pacific".

The teams will be led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but will also include experts from the private sector and specialists from intelligence agencies like the Australian Signals Directorate.

The federal government has also devoted a further $16.7 million to help Pacific nations identify online vulnerabilities and trial solutions that can reduce the threat of online attacks.

Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts told the ABC cyber attacks were the "fastest growing threat" to the Pacific's national security — just as they are in Australia.

"As Pacific Island nations realise their economic ambitions and develop their connectivity, their exposure to that threat grows," he said.

"So the Australian government knows we have to lift our engagement to ensure we consolidate our position as partner of choice for the Pacific family when it comes to building resilience to these threats."

Australia builds trust in region 
But the government is also treading carefully, stressing that the "rapid response teams" will only be sent to Pacific Island countries that specifically request assistance from Australia.

One government source told the ABC it was "very conscious of sensitivities" in the Pacific around sovereignty, including in the cyber space – pointing to the stalled security pact between Australia and Vanuatu.

The prime minister who signed that deal before being later ousted, Ishmael Kalsakau, complained that social media "misinformation" about the deal had convinced some in Vanuatu that "troops from Australia will enter the country without visas and access our sovereign data".

But Mr Watts said Australia had built up "deep wells of trust" with the Pacific governments by responding to requests for help in the wake of cyber attacks.

"In the last 18 months there have been a number of very significant cyber incidents in the Pacific … and Australia's response to requests for assistance from countries like Tonga and Vanuatu, to name two, have been publicly acknowledged," he said.

"And we want to strive to lift our engagement, to lift our investment, to build on that relationship of trust."

 

Story first published on ABC News

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