Federal Politics


Staying ahead of the hackers

In the arcane and rapidly evolving world of cyber security, only one law appears immutable: all government, commercial and academic computer systems will, at some point, be subject to attacks by hackers, either as sport or theft, or as a concerted attempt at espionage. Only this week a Queensland medical practice became another victim of what has come to be knows as ''ransomware attacks'' in which individuals hack into systems, encrypt the data and then demand a ransom for sending a key to release it.

The need for hyper-vigilance would appear to be self-evident. Yet even the databases of large and well-resourced government and commercial organisations continue to be breached. The raid on a database of the Australian Defence Force Academy, revealed online by this newspaper on Tuesday, exposed a disturbing lapse in security at one of the nation's leading universities. According to an engineer with extensive experience in network security, however, the implications of the attack may go far deeper.

RMIT University senior lecturer Mark Gregory argues that some of those students whose details were stolen may become Australia's future military leaders, and that the accumulation of personal details, whether from social media or supposedly secure sites, could help foreign powers intercept and interfere in Australian military communications. According to Dr Gregory, ''the more data that potential enemies [have] about our commanding officers, the more likely future cyber operations against the defence forces [will] be successful''.

It may well have already occurred to military cyber-security experts that clandestine efforts to eavesdrop on government and military communications (or to sow misinformation) might be enabled by the accumulation of personal data on senior officials as well as emerging talent. Such concerns may have been known at ADFA, though we cannot be certain. The apparent ease with which the database was breached by a lone and ''bored'' hacker will no doubt ensure the University of NSW, which runs ADFA's academic courses, steps up its security measures.

Dr Gregory's solution to the problem of military leaders whose electronic personal profiles pose a security risk is to have all their data in the public domain erased, and to prohibit them from using social media. Given the extent to which even ordinary Australians now leave a sizeable imprint in cyberspace, this is probably not feasible. What this breach does highlight is that governments and large affiliated organisations storing the identity data of individuals have a duty to stay a step ahead of the hackers.

Great expectations

C harles Dickens, as the more enthusiastic of his readers would know, had an affinity for Australia. At least four of his novels feature characters who are dispatched to Australia - among them Wilkins Micawber and Abel Magwitch. Freed from the squalor and inequity of Victorian England, both characters thrived in their new environment. Being an enthusiastic son of the empire, the great writer encouraged four of his sons - he had 10 children in all - to set out for various parts to make their way and perhaps their fortunes. Walter and Frank were packed off to India, and Alfred and Edward (better known as Plorn) were sent to Australia.

Despite letters of introduction, however, both Alfred and Plorn struggled to establish themselves in outback NSW. So much so that Dickens often found himself sending money to his errant children - as many a parent has done before and since. One such cheque, dated October 26, 1869, and made out to Alfred Tennyson Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens for the tidy sum of £100, went on display at the National Library on Wednesday.

Mysteriously, given the circumstance of the two boys at that time, the cheque was never cashed. Folds indicate that it may have been kept in a wallet for an emergency that never arose, since Alfred and Plorn did eventually find some success in Australia. Their endings were more Dickensian than perhaps their father might have liked, however. Plorn died penniless in Moree, where his grave remained unmarked for years, while Alfred, whose wife died in Hamilton in Victoria's western district, wound up in the United States reading extracts from his father's novels. The other mystery, certainly as far as younger readers are concerned, is what exactly is a cheque? The answer to that may be determined by resort to a reputable search engine.