Inside the new cyber centre training Australia's new front line
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Inside the new cyber centre training Australia's new front line

As an ex-policeman, cyber expert Nigel Phair knows a thing or two about fingerprinting a crime scene.

But, while the forensics lab at the University of New South Wales' new cyber security centre in Canberra might look different to his old AFP headquarters, people still leave plenty of evidence behind online.

Director of UNSW Canberra's Cyber Centre Nigel Phair says governments and organisations should be more transparent when they are breached

Director of UNSW Canberra's Cyber Centre Nigel Phair says governments and organisations should be more transparent when they are breachedCredit:Dion Georgopoulos

"They leave footprints all over the place," Mr Phair says.

"Everything we do is online, on our phones, tapping on and off, it leaves us open [to attack]...but criminals leave them as well."

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Sometimes the job requires experts to get inside more than just the metadata of a hacker, but their mindset too. Industry associate at the centre Ed Farrell calls it using his computer powers for good.

'We hack to learn, we don't learn to hack," he says, after explaining how he bought a home security system from Costco so his students could crack it.

"Within five minutes, they'd found a way in. I told [the manufacturer] and they've now patched it."

The $3 million centre works closely with government agencies and the army to skill up the next generation of "cyber defenders", offering virtual computing and high-tech training scenarios to keep those on the frontline a step ahead of an ever growing threat.

Cyber expert Nigel Phair in the new cyber security centre at UNSW.

Cyber expert Nigel Phair in the new cyber security centre at UNSW.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

Opening the facility on Wednesday, federal minister for cyber security Angus Taylor said the government was bracing for a looming skills drought, with a shortfall of more than 20,000 cyber professionals expected in the next decade, even as the industry boomed.

While some experts have warned this could leave Australia more vulnerable to attack, Mr Phair said it was diversity rather than numbers that mattered most.

"People say its about technical skills, but really we need different thinkers. There are many ways to crack a problem."

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Mr Taylor said more and more hackers targeting Australia were now state-sponsored, as government agencies, hospitals, universities, even schools came under attack.

Sometimes it was an attempt to steal state secrets, sometimes it was a shot across the bows.

Russia was responsible for one recently, Mr Taylor said. "We will continue to call them out."

But, as cyber warfare rages on in the deep silence of the internet, Mr Phair says official responses come at different volumes. Last month, while the Singaporean government laid out the details of a devastating breach of its health records, the Australian National University and federal agencies all went to ground over a China-based breach of the university's IT systems.

The attack, which authorities had been struggling to contain for months, put the home of Australia's national security college as well as key defence research at risk.

The ANU has confirmed the breach but was unable to comment further on Wednesday due to national security concerns.

In a statement last month, vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said no personal or financial data had been stolen, based on analysis by both the university and government agencies, but he urged all students and staff to change their passwords.

"The most disappointing thing is when they say 'national security, can't talk about it...nothing to see here', it's the same with the My Health Record," Mr Phair said.

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To build back trust with the community, government, business and universities all needed to become more transparent about attacks and show they were fixing things, he said.

"Especially after the Census [problems] and now My Health Record."


Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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