​Turnbull's cybersecurity adviser rejects creating Australia's Silicon Valley

Alastair MacGibbon believes there is no point in trying to create Silicon Valley in Australia when government and industry should instead focus on nurturing the limited pool of talent the country holds.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Despite calling California's Silicon Valley a remarkable place, Alastair MacGibbon, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security, has said it is more worthwhile for Australia to create its own model rather than attempt to duplicate what is done in the United States.

Speaking at the inaugural SINET 61 conference in Sydney, MacGibbon said he often asks himself how Australia should go about ensuring that it avoids replicating what other countries have done.

MacGibbon believes there is a way to take what is uniquely Australian and make it into something that adds value, something that is worthwhile to the country but also something governments and local organisations will buy. He said it must also be something that Australia would be excited to sell to the world.

"We need to create these boomerang businesses," he said. "That we recognise that they will go offshore sometimes, that it's part of the adventure, but help create the foundation so that they can come back so that even before they leave they have a pathway to come back to this country, because anyone who has worked offshore knows the joy of coming home."

SINET is a global security network with a mission to advance innovation and enable collaboration between the public and private sectors to defeat cybersecurity threats. SINET 61 is the local chapter of the event, hosted by Data 61, Australia's digital research body formed in 2015 as the result of a merger between the digital productivity arm of the CSIRO with National ICT Australia.

"Clearly in this increasingly digital world, cybersecurity is more and more important and it's the dual challenge that the prime minister often mentions of both growing that economy and securing and protecting our interests online, and those two cannot be done in isolation and they cannot be done without each other," MacGibbon said.

"It can only be done with effective partnerships -- partnerships like the ones we see emerge here in this country. Partnerships between the private sector and government because it can't be done by government alone and frankly, it can't be done by any industry alone and it can't be done by government and industry alone. It needs researchers, it needs investors, it needs that ecosystem that is so vital for us to make that significant change."

According to MacGibbon, cyber space presents enormous opportunities for Australian business and society; he conceded however that such opportunities result in enormous challenges and complex threats.

While the cyber veteran admits that Australia's cybersecurity industry is in its infancy, he said there are some outstanding local examples of companies producing remarkable IP.

Speaking of the likes of Canberra's quantum computing startup QuintessenceLabs, MacGibbon asked how Australia and the government can help grow and nurture such companies.

"We all know that government has not always been a great innovator; we also know that when government says it's going to help innovate it doesn't always do so," he said. "So how can government help create an environment where that innovation is not prescribed or mandated and very importantly, not stifled at the same time, but somehow to create a sense where the IP can organically thrive and grow without hindrance from government, but with help from government where it's appropriate?"

MacGibbon said that one thing he hears echoed with every entrepreneur he speaks to is the trend of a local startup scoring its first deal overseas, signing with a foreign intelligence agency or a foreign multinational.

"How is that the case when we have a AU$5 billion spend from the Commonwealth government that we can't buy good quality IP from ourselves and we wait until other governments buy it and then we think once it's been acquired by someone else that it's worth buying?" he said.

In April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled the country's Cyber Security Strategy, a strategy compiled of what MacGibbon called 33 ambitious initiatives.

"I've been around in this game for quite some time; I've been here for several of these strategies and I've never detected the same level of interest. I've never seen industry or academia as engaged and frankly I've never seen government as engaged in this process," he said.

"I realise that I now have the fantastic opportunity to take that strategy forward."

MacGibbon said the strategy contains some great examples of how to grow businesses and help innovation flourish, pointing to the Cyber Security Growth Centre that is chaired by Data61's CEO Adrian Turner.

In December, Turnbull pledged AU$30 million through to 2019-20 as part of the government's AU$1.1 billion National Science and Innovation Agenda to establish the new industry-led Cyber Security Growth Centre in a bid to grow and strengthen Australia's cybersecurity industry.

"The idea behind that centre is not just conversation, not just bringing people together -- that only goes so far -- it's actually to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. It's actually to invest money into those connections, into that development of IP, into the commercialisation of those great ideas, and into the export of those ideas because that's where we'll start making a difference," MacGibbon said.

"I think the growth centre is potentially one of the great keys that is in the Cyber Security Strategy ... and I think gives it the most chance of not just surviving but thriving."

MacGibbon said it is about pooling the limited amount of people Australia has in the industry and working on making sure the country has the right qualified and experienced people to take the country forward.

He said it is about breaking down silos and actually doing all of the things that have to be done in a way that does not have government interfering. According to MacGibbon, it is about shifting the concept of cybsersecurity from being a problem into an opportunity.

"This is about innovation, interactivity, accountability, and transparency. This is about us allowing market places to flourish while at the same time removing barriers and encouraging, supporting, and funding where we can to create that fourth industrial revolution," he said.

"If we want to change from being the lucky country to the clever country ... it's by doing this.

"It's by taking that knowledge economy that we're actually very good at, and helping build that trust.

"I desperately want to see this succeed and we will continue to try until we do."

In recent weeks, MacGibbon has been conducting a review into the botched August 9 Census, which the government initially said was the result of a hardware failure in a router, causing a series of events that resulted in the site being pulled down by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

"While in and of itself, the denial of service attack or attacks were small, and the actual turning off of that census service to the Australian public -- apart from being an annoyance -- wasn't great," MacGibbon said on Tuesday.

"But the impact in terms of trust and confidence, the impact in terms of the ability of government to deliver services will last for a significant period."

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