Cuts could threaten Australia's cyberscience future

Australia is investing in short-term cyber technology goals, but what about longer-term strategic investments?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Australia's new electronic warfare research and simulation facility in Adelaide.

(Image: Stilgherrian)

On 22 June this year, off the Black Sea coast of Novorossiysk, Russia, a vessel had a problem. Its GPS system said its position was 80 percent accurate to within 100 metres, but it was actually wrong by 25 nautical miles. That's some 46 kilometres.

According to a report at The Maritime Executive, the US Coast Guard Navigation Center told the vessel's master that GPS in that region should be accurate down to 3 metres, and advised checking for software updates. But everything was working, and this vessel wasn't the only one with problems.

"I confirm my GPS equipment is fine. We run self test few times and all is working good. I confirm all ships in the area (more than 20 ships) have the same problem. I personally contacted three of them via VHF, they confirmed the same," the master messaged.

"For few days, GPS gave a position inland (near Gelendzhik airport) but vessel was actually drifting more than 25 NM from it."

The obvious explanation is that Russia was interfering with GPS signals. Nobody has confirmed that theory, but Russia does have "very advanced capabilities to disrupt GPS", as The Maritime Executive put it.

Todd Humphreys from the University of Texas at Austin thinks this is exactly what's going on. "The receiver's behaviour in the Black Sea incident was much like during the controlled attacks my team conducted," Humphreys told New Scientist.

Similar effects have been seen in Moscow, where a fake GPS signal relocates people to Vnukovo Airport, 32 kilometres away. The problem wasn't hugely apparent until people tried playing Pokémon Go near the Kremlin.

The theory makes sense. GPS was invented by the US to target weapons, especially nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, so why wouldn't Russia try to break it?

After all, Russia has its own satellite navigation system, GLONASS. Meanwhile, Europe has been building its Galileo system. China is planning to build BeiDou-2, a global system to supplant the regional BeiDou-1. India has NAVIC. Japan is developing its Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS).

It's obvious that major players are making sure they're not reliant on US systems.

Now I mention this Black Sea incident for two reasons.

One, it reminds us that cyber warfare isn't really new. The idea of spoofing GPS signals is the direct descendant of the Battle of the Beams in the early part of World War II, when the British used technical means to interfere with the radio navigation systems used by German bombers.

Two, as Humphreys told New Scientist, this sort of thing can now be done with commercial hardware and easily-obtained software. The digitally-enabled asymmetry between attacker and defender in cybersecurity carries across to this -- what shall we call it? -- cyber-enhanced electronic warfare.

Australia is actually pretty good at this stuff, although we don't talk about it much. I hinted at this two years ago, in 2015, when I suggested that we could ramp up our defence exports.

I was therefore pleased when, in September 2016, the Turnbull government announced a AU$500 million expansion of our electronic warfare capabilities.

The project includes a new facility to house "laboratories, simulation equipment, and testing support systems" in the defence precinct in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, next to the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) complex, and just down the road from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at Edinburgh. This will doubtless build upon the reputedly excellent work of DST's Cyber and Electronic Warfare Division.

However, developing Australia's cyber industries is a major part of our Cyber Security Strategy. Technology industries -- real technology, not cookie-cutter apps to do people out of proper jobs -- are built on a foundation of science. And science takes time. Lots of time.

The new Australian Cyber Security Growth Network, now branded AustCyber, is going great guns. But it's about technology, not science.

In April 2016, the head of DST's Cyber and Electronic Warfare Division Dr Jackie Craig called for a big-science approach to the nation's cybersecurity research. She makes a good point.

So where is the science coming from? Where are the scientists coming from?

As ZDNet reported on Monday, in the context of announcing a new Australian space agency, the government is actually cutting staff at Data61 and the CSIRO. The government has also been making big cuts to university funding, which will almost certainly cause them to focus on shorter-term profitable research rather than longer-term blue sky projects.

It's almost as if the Turnbull government isn't looking any further ahead than the next election.

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