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Australia stepping up foreign cooperation on state-level cyber deterrence

Addressing an inquiry into Australia's trade system and the digital economy, Ambassador for Cybercrime Tobias Feakin said the nation and its neighbours are thinking 'quite actively' about how to join forces on cyber deterrence.

The Australian government is increasingly concerned about the blurring of state and non-state activity, in particular that certain states have used third-party criminal groups to mask their cyber-based activity, a joint parliamentary committee has heard.

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Addressing an inquiry into Australia's trade system and the digital economy on Friday, Australia's first Ambassador for Cybercrime Tobias Feakin said that while it is tough to create responses to such activity, it is something the government is thinking of "quite actively" alongside its neighbouring countries.

"We're thinking about if it is possible or plausible to get to a point of thinking about cyber deterrence; are there ways that groups of states can push back on some of this behaviour in a way that means that states will think twice -- because currently states don't tend to think twice -- it's, 'What can we get away with?'" Feakin told the committee.

"Some states now use criminal activity to put money in their own coffers, and you'll see that through the attribution of WannaCry to North Korea."

The committee heard that as the bar is now being lowered for cybercrime entry, individuals don't need to be a "whiz kid" with an abundance of tool kits for hire and malware to download. Feakin said it has become a more complex proposition than just limiting access to the internet and therefore the digital economy.

"The benefits from it, I think, still outweigh the dangers we now see emerge from the criminal space," he added.

Pointing to an agreement signed with China last year on preventing the cyber-enabled theft of one another's intellectual property, Feakin said steps are already in place to create a cyber resilience capability that benefits the greater Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

"We believe that through building the additional cybersecurity capability of our partners, then it's a common good ... it creates a better market for our companies to invest in," he said. "Not naming names, but I think some of the countries our companies are brave enough to go invest in in the digital economy -- I can only imagine what their risk profile must be like. So if there are things DFAT can do to assist, we will."

As the committee is concerned with the security of Australia's trade system in the digital economy, Feakin explained that his role as cyber ambassador is to maximise economic opportunities for growth and prosperity through digital trade. He noted that the way in which he and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) hope to achieve that is through firstly shaping an enabling environment for digital trade, including through trade agreements, and secondly the implementation of trade facilitation measures.

"We are as a nation actively involved in trying to shape that global picture and the rule making that goes on in the digital trade space, and trying to reduce barriers to digital trade," he added.

"We can't stand still, especially when dealing with the online environment -- it shifts so quickly.

"We want to achieve the best economic benefit for Australia, but unless we're looking at cybersecurity and uplifting cybersecurity in the international community, and also looking at how we address cybercriminal activity, then, to be frank, it will begin to unravel all that we have."

On Australia's side, according to Feakin, is that the country has a "great, trusted brand of diplomacy".

"If you're bringing that brand to cybersecurity and securing the networks that underpin the growth in the region, then that's a great opportunity we need to exploit," he added.

"When you think about the ability to interfere with commercial networks, one of the biggest issues we face is that it's all based on the same infrastructure, regardless of if it's government or private sector, there's a common threat picture we're all trying to deal with."

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