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Frontline of internet espionage

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In Australia the annual cost of cyber crime to business and government is estimated at $4.5 billion, writes EWA KRETOWICZ

Minister for Defence John Faulkner at the opening of  Defence?'s new Cyber Security Operations Centre in Canberra.

Minister for Defence John Faulkner at the opening of Defence?'s new Cyber Security Operations Centre in Canberra. Photo: Bryan Doherty

HONEY traps, digital forensics and unravelling corporate espionage are all in a day's work for director of the Security Research Institute at Edith Cowan University Craig Valli.

As one of Australia's leading experts on cyber security and crime, Valli can't talk specifically about the stings hen has set up for the multimillion-dollar corporations and the government agencies, but the computer genius is not surprised by a 50 per cent jump in cyber attacks on government and big business this year.

While the image of a James Bond super spy is etched into collective consciousness, stealing sensitive government or business secrets is more likely to occur from behind a computer than by a muscled man in a fitted tux.

''It's not a pimple-faced adolescent with an attitude problem, it's highly organised crime - highly organised groups going after valuable information that has a bigger resale value than the credit card details of everyone in that organisation,'' Valli says.

The number of cyber attacks logged by Canberra's defence spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, jumped 43 per cent last year. The DSD, which set up the Cyber Security Operations Centre in 2010, identified 1259 ''cyber incidents'' in 2011. Last year government and big business networks reported 1790.

Valli says it is the tip of the iceberg as complacency about data protection in Australia slowly turns to vigilance.

Responding to questions from Fairfax Media, a spokesman from the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism said it was ''constantly under cyber threat from a number of external sources with some level of attempted penetration occurring daily.''

The Attorney-General's Department experienced four denial-of-service attacks last year.

''We have significant issues with cyber attacks on all organisations and I don't see it declining in the next five to 10 years,'' Valli says.

''I would expect that as people become more comfortable with reporting this, numbers will continue to increase. There is better realisation of the threat and what the risk represents to Australia.''

He says many companies are unaware that their systems have been compromised.

''The problem with cyber is that you don't always know. If I kick your door in, you'll notice. If I steal your details you may not,'' Valli says.

The cyber expert was not surprised that the Department of Energy and Resources was a bigger target for cyber criminals than the Department of Health and Ageing, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Attorney-General's Department.

A spokeswoman from DoHA says the department foiled 12 attempts last year.

''These were recorded in February, July, August, September, October and December 2012 and one in January 2013. None of these was successful.''

DAFF faced no specific cyber attacks last year.

Valli says it's always about money and inside information.

''The value of information in resources and energy would be of interest to a whole cohort; whereas fisheries, unless you have an interest in fish, there is not a lot of saleable information there. That's what people aren't getting. It's not just financial gain; this is corporate espionage. It's often the information that people are after that has the value - not the credit card numbers, not the bank account details - it might be the strategic plan for opening up coalmining throughout the east coast.''

Cyber crime is costing Australia billions.

In 2012 the head of the US National Security Agency and the Pentagon's Cyber Command, General Keith Alexander, said cyber theft led to the ''the greatest transfer of wealth in history'' and estimated the cost of intellectual property theft to US companies was $US250 billion a year ''with an additional $US1 trillion spent globally on remediation''.

In Australia the estimated cost of cyber crime is $4.5 billion - more than burglary and assault combined.

Valli says one of the biggest problems with preventing cyber crime is the disproportionate power of a lone hacker compared with the time and money it costs to secure a system.

''It's an asymmetry problem. One person can create a lot of havoc and that's part of the problem. One hacker or a band of three can start to look like 500,000.''

In 2011, a 25-year-old Cowra truck driver was arrested on 49 hacking charges after a six-month investigation. He had hacked into the systems of Platform Networks, one of the 13 service providers for the national broadband network, breaching firewalls and bypassing all their security systems. The self-taught hacker effectively controlled Platform Networks' entire system for six weeks.

Returning to the anti-Bond theme, Valli says cyber honeypots do not involve a sexy soviet spy named Ivanka and attacks are more likely to come through a side door.

''If someone was to come after me they'd come through the people I work with. So, they'll attack my personal assistant, get into her email. It's not a full frontal attack. They go after the secondary and tertiary sources of the information or data.''

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says cyber security is a top national security priority. Her government intends to set up a Australian cyber security centre, bringing together intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

But Valli warns: ''Just as in the physical world you can never make something 100 per cent secure, you can't make things 100 per cent secure [online]. The recent announcement is a move that we need … but it's not a quick-fix. It's a 10-year window to build this capability.''

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