Alastair MacGibbon takes optimistic view of 2016 Census gaffe

Australia's Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security has taken a positive stance on the 2016 Census debacle that was labelled a 'confluence of failure', calling it the wake-up call the nation needed.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australia's Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon has taken the glass half-full approach to the 2016 Census debacle, calling it a wake-up call the federal government needed.

On August 9, 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) experienced a series of denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, suffered a hardware router failure, and baulked at a false positive report of data being exfiltrated, which resulted in the Census website being shut down and citizens unable to complete their online submissions.

Addressing the ACS Cybersecurity Panel discussion in Sydney on Tuesday, MacGibbon said there has been a few "seminal events" that have occurred in the past 15 months to bring the conversation of cybersecurity to the forefront, using the Census blunder as his example.

"It wasn't just that we launched the [cybersecurity] strategy, it wasn't just that there are great organisations coming together, there were a few seminal events," he explained.

"The first was in August last year when the Census stopped functioning -- you may have noticed that -- that called into question the very concept of digital service delivery of government and whether people could trust us to gather information, to hold that information securely, and to use that information wisely."

MacGibbon called it a "really interesting wake-up call".

Two other examples Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's cybersecurity advisor pointed to were the United States democratic election and the WannaCry ransomware that swept the globe earlier this year.

To MacGibbon, such events highlight the necessity for Australia to stay abreast of the global cybersecurity landscape, and ensure the country is doing what it can to keep citizens safe.

"For this year, 2017, I've been saying 2017 is the year for us to make a dramatic difference in terms of cybersecurity," he said, echoing previous presentations he's given.

Turnbull launched the country's AU$240 million cybersecurity strategy in April last year, which is aimed at defending the nation's cyber networks from organised criminals and state-sponsored attackers, and sits alongside the AU$400 million provided in the Defence White Paper for cyber activities.

"I think the most exciting things launched by the prime minister was this concept of improving the skill base in Australia and developing a cybersecurity industry," MacGibbon said on Tuesday.

"It goes without saying that it makes economic sense for this country to grow an industry in an area that has such staggering year-on-year growth.

"Cybersecurity is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and we need to have our fair share of the economic play."

According to MacGibbon, it makes sense that as Australia grows its cybersecurity skills and capabilities, it will also result in the added benefit of security and safety for those in and around the country.

"It's widely recognised that there's a skills deficit in ICT broadly, but particularly when it comes to cybersecurity," he added.

Speaking with ZDNet earlier this year, MacGibbon said he wants the understanding of cybersecurity to be a life skill children of today grow up with, which means taking the conversation to primary school classrooms.

While PhD, university, and even high school students should still be gaining powerful knowledge on the threat landscape, MacGibbon would argue this kind of structure isn't enough to ensure the success of Australia when it comes to cybersecurity.

"For me, being a successful person in my generation was being able to read and write and do basic maths," he told ZDNet. "What is going to get our kids to be successful in this world is the concept of computation, coding, and communication.

"If we're going to win when it comes to protecting the Australian way of life, in terms of cybersecurity, then it indeed starts in primary schools."

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