Australia has plenty of cyber potential, but will it do anything about it?

Australia's paths to successful cyber innovation are right in front of it, if only it bothers to look, fixes some obvious problems, and takes action.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

There's both good news and bad news from last week's SINET61 cyber innovation conference in Sydney. Yes, Australia has the potential to be a great innovator, and not just in the cybers. But can it break out of its historical complacency?

The good news is that there is indeed a real opportunity.

Australia is already a "cyber tourism" destination, with other nations eager to learn from us. We know about critical infrastructure protection, and we're learning more from Japan. We know about the security of internet-things that can affect the physical world, the so-called cyber-physical systems. Both technologies represent huge growth markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The difference between Australia, and China and America, I think, is this word called 'trust'. You are the trusted entity, not only in the region, but in the world, and you have an opportunity," said Robert D Rodriguez, founder and chairman of SINET, the Security Information Network.

"Here is the place, and the time is now," he said.

Rodriguez believes Australia has "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to capitalise on its resources in the sciences, and in research and development, to "capture the world as the leading R&D centre in computing, artificial intelligence, cyber-physical, and so on".

Other nations are envious of Australia's much-delayed Cyber Security Strategy, which was eventually released in April this year. That seemed to be confirmed at SINET61 by comments from Dawn Meyerriecks, deputy director of the Directorate of Science and Technology at the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It's something I've also heard directly from technologists from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies, and through the industry grapevine.

Why? Because Australia's strategy goes beyond short-term goals such as intelligence-sharing, giving attention to, and sometimes providing money for, industry and economic development, and education and training.

Alastair MacGibbon, the prime minister's special adviser on cybersecurity, is not only a fan of the strategy -- part of his job is to help implement it -- he reckons the delay has had a positive effect.

"In many respects, the delay in the strategy, and the pent-up desire in the community that I've seen for that strategy, means that it'll be more successful," MacGibbon told the conference.

"I've been here for several of these strategies, and I've never detected the same level of interest. I've never seen industry be as engaged, academia as engaged, and frankly I've never seen government as engaged in this process."

The conference heard plenty of talk of Australia's strengths in quantum computing, unmanned aerial vehicle systems for agriculture and environmental monitoring, and our research in probably-correct operating systems.

And I was certainly pleased to hear MacGibbon reject the idea of an Australian Silicon Valley. As I've written before, it ain't going to happen.

This inaugural SINET61, a collaboration between SINET and CSIRO's Data61, was intended to foster collaboration between researchers, industry, and government, and it seems to have succeeded. Plenty of side conversations, head nodding, and card exchanging.

But how will things continue from here? Not well, I suspect.

Here's just some of the bad news, at least as I see it.

One, government processes still seem to fall short of the prime minister's agile ideal. Eddie Sheehy, chief executive officer of Nuix, said that one government funding source had taken three case officers and nine months to consider an application.

"I wouldn't have trusted these guys with a calculator," Sheehy said.

Two, there's still an emphasis on startups. Startups have become the political battleground for politicians seeking disruptor-cred. They're buying into the pop culture of disruption, and ignoring much of the innovation that happens in existing businesses because it doesn't generate as many headlines.

Startups also tend to be about short-term higher-risk business investment. But, says Dr Jackie Craig, head of the Cyber and Electronic Warfare Division of Australia's Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, that tends to result in short-term research, and only incremental improvements to existing systems.

The DST Group consciously looks for long-term, breakthrough research, but can startups ever do the same?

Three, even if startups were the answer, Australia is expensive. Indeed, as tech industry commentator Paul Wallbank reminded us earlier this month, Sydney is the second-most expensive city in the world for establishing a startup, beaten only by Zurich.

"Addressing Sydney's chronic shortage of affordable accomodation is firmly in the state and federal governments' remit, and beyond giving property developers a green light to build high rise apartments neither level of government has shown any interest in addressing it," Wallbank wrote.

"Similarly, the tax structures which penalise Australian employees of high growth businesses and dissuade investment in early stage ventures are totally the responsibility of the federal government and it's hard to see that changing in the term of the current dysfunctional administration."

Four, Australian investors still tend to avoid tech investments, or anything they perceive as higher-risk, even for a small percentage of their investment portfolio. Could that be down to the average company director being 63 years old?

Five, as noted by John Grill, chair of the Industry Growth Centre Advisory Committee, a number of speakers said that collaboration between researchers and industry is poor. I also heard plenty of comments to the effect that Australia has good people and resources, but they need to collaborate more. We need better government support. We need better industry connections. Etc etc etc ...

We've been hearing these messages for decades. I'm wondering whether Australians simply prefer talking about the need for collaboration rather than actually doing it.

By coincidence, on Tuesday morning I stumbled across a blog post by Kit Perez, a postgrad student in intelligence and counterintelligence, titled What You Can Learn From Troy Hunt. Perez is referring to the Australian security researcher of that name and his work on Have I Been Pwned, amongst other things.

Perez's message is simple. You achieve things by doing them.

"If you see a problem that affects you, don't feel like you need a crowd or a leader to tell you how to handle it. Use your skills, use your brain, and come up with a solution that upholds principles and gets the job done," she wrote.

"When you decide to simply step up and come up with a solution, others will see it, and they will sometimes adopt your solution for themselves, thereby spreading the original message."

Stop the talking, Australia. Just get on with it.

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