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Aussie forms taskforce to deal with ransomware attacks

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 20 July 2021, 10:50 am

As New Zealand joins Australia and other allies in criticising China for its state-sponsored hacking, the Australian Government is mobilising to combat ransomware attacks.

Operation Orcus is a new task force that is drawn from the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), financial intelligence agency Austrac and state police forces.

It will receive beefed-up support from the AFP, with the number of officers working directly with the ACSC and committed to cyber issues increasing from 13 to 35.

The focus of the task force will be preventing crippling ransomware attacks which Australian businesses, hospitals and government agencies have been targeted with of late, mirroring the onslaught on our own businesses and public agencies.

The move follows the US Government last week establishing its own ransomware taskforce as well as a policy measure that offers a US$10 million reward for help identifying cyber criminals behind ransomware attacks. 

The US has dealt with its own spate of damaging infrastructure outages resulting from ransomware freezing IT systems, including those of the Colonial oil pipeline which pumps millions of litres of fuel from Texas to the east coast of the US every day.

Halting ransomware payments

The US task force will oversee a range of defensive and offensive measures to deal with ransomware attacks, including "promoting digital resilience among critical infrastructure companies, working to halt ransom payments made through cryptocurrency platforms and coordinating activities with U.S. allies," according to Politico.

The US has joined with its allies including New Zealand in criticising China, not for ransomware, but the Microsoft Exchange mail server exploit which affected tens of thousands of organisations worldwide in March. 

Government Communications Security Bureau minister Andrew Little said this morning that "a robust technical attribution process" had seen the GCSB accurately identify China as being behind the Microsoft email hack. It joined Five Eyes allies, NATO members and European Union nations in accusing China of working in cooperation with criminal hacker groups to coordinate international cyber attacks.

The ransomware task forces in the US and Australia are the result of political pressure over the issue. Australia's government said last month that it would consider making it illegal for insurance companies to pay out for claims related to paying ransomware demands.

What are we doing specifically on ransomware? The approach, publicly anyway, has been very low-key in comparison to the US and Australia. 

Little said that an inquiry into the Waikato DHB hack would be undertaken to ascertain exactly how it had happened and what the health sector can learn from it. The Government was injecting $385 million into the health sector to deal with run-down IT infrastructure, said Little, but more generally, he highlighted the responsibility of each organisation to get its IT shop in order in the face of growing cyber threats.

"It is incumbent on system owners, system stewards, to make sure that they are doing the basics every step of the way to keep their systems going and to keep their systems safe and, ultimately, to protect the integrity of those whose data they are holding at any particular point in time."


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