Canberra to create cyber and IP taskforce to protect unis from foreign interference

New group to create guidelines for detecting and responding to cyber incidents from foreign actors.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor on

The Australian government has said it will establish a University Foreign Interference Taskforce made up of people from universities, national security agencies, and the federal Department of Education. The taskforce will initially be tasked with creating guidelines to protect against foreign interference.

Minister for Education Dan Tehan said the taskforce will have four areas of responsibility across cyber security, research and intellectual property, foreign collaboration, and culture and communication.

Under cyber security, Tehan said the group will work to have an ecosystem that is "resilient to unauthorised access, manipulation, disruption or damage; and to better manage and protect our networks, as well as detect and respond to cyber security incidents should they occur".

While for research and IP, the group will seek to find and deter deception, undue influence, and unauthorised disclosure or disruption of research. The group will also ensure that collaboration with foreign entities is transparent, undertaken with full knowledge and consent, and in a manner that avoids harm to Australia's interests, Tehan added.

"Our government is taking action to provide clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration, and a university's autonomy," Tehan said.

"Universities also understand the risk to their operations and to the national interest from cyber attacks and foreign interference and we are working constructively to address it."

According to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, nation-state actors are looking to target universities for research and IP theft, but also to use reliable university network infrastructure to hide within.

In June, Australian National University disclosed that an attacker got into its systems during late 2018 and was not discovered until May.

"We believe there was unauthorised access to significant amounts of personal staff, student, and visitor data extending back 19 years," vice chancellor Brian Schmidt wrote at the time.

"Depending on the information you have provided to the university, this may include names, addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers, personal email addresses and emergency contact details, tax file numbers, payroll information, bank account details, and passport details. Student academic records were also accessed."

That same month, the Australian Education Council extended the trial of the online component of the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing by one year to 2021.

The original timeline for all schools across Australia to complete NAPLAN online was by 2020, following a trial period of the online platform.

Speaking on Wednesday, Tehan said despite complaints about the test overall, the focus should be getting it all online.

"We have got 50% of that achieved and we have got to get the rest of it all online," he said.

"Once that's done, then I've said it quite publicly, I'm open to look at what do we need to do with NAPLAN to make sure it's fit for purpose for the next 5 or 10 years.

"At the moment we're making a huge transition from pen to online. Let's get that right and let's not lose focus of what the results are showing, because the results show we need to do a lot more hard work to get the outcomes that we need from our students."

Shadow Minister For Education And Training Tanya Plibersek said on Wednesday that results from NAPLAN showed the government had failed to reverse a declining trend of education.

"We continue to see from this government a complete failure to address the problems in our schools," Plibersek said.

"We see a government that has cut billions from schools, cut billions from TAFE and universities and is reducing the opportunity that our school students have to go on to a successful job because they are cutting funding to TAFE and universities as well as schools."

Tehan added that he was looking to work with vice-chancellors, industry, and business to look at ways to increase commercialisation of Australian research.

"When you look at other countries, they're able to get greater benefits, especially economic benefits, from that research than we're getting at the moment," he said.

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