Australia: cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructure

A quarter of cyber incidents reported to Australian security officials over the past year have targeted critical infrastructure and essential services, including health care, food distribution and energy, according to a report out today (15 Sep).

The report, by the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) warns of incidents have “underscored the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to significant disruption in essential services, lost revenue and the potential of harm or loss of life”, as well as “significant targeting, both domestically and globally, of essential services”.

The report also says that ransomware attacks disclosed to the ACSC increased 15% in the 2020-21 financial year, when compared with the previous financial year.

Such a disclosure is hardly surprising in a period which has seen major institutions, both public and private around the globe, the target of high profile ransomware attacks in recent months by sophisticated criminals.

Overall, the ACSC received more than 67,500 reports of cybercrime of all types in 2020-21, or one every eight minutes, compared with one every 10 minutes the previous year.

The report says businesses, individuals and other entities had incurred more than $33 billion in total losses from cyber-crime throughout the year.

Cybercriminals sought to exploit the pandemic by encouraging recipients to enter personal credentials to access COVID-related information or services, while unnamed foreign governments targeted the health sector seeking “access to intellectual property or sensitive information about Australia’s response to COVID”.

The ACSC responded to about 1,630 cybersecurity incidents in 2020-21, or an average of 31 cybersecurity incidents a week.

“Approximately one quarter of reported cybersecurity incidents affected critical infrastructure organisations, including essential services such as education, health, communications, electricity, water and transport,” the report says.

A breakdown of the severity of cyber incidents in 2020-21 shows there were 14 cases in which federal government entities or nationally significant infrastructure suffered the removal or damage of sensitive data or intellectual property.

This category also includes the supply chain to critical national infrastructure. Those entities also suffered a further 44 incidents in which there was an active network intrusion or temporary disruption to systems or services.

With nearly 500 ransomware cybercrime reports in the 2020-21 financial year, the ACSC says the problem has “grown in profile and impact, and poses one of the most significant threats to Australian organisations”.

“This increase has been associated with an increasing willingness of criminals to extort money from particularly vulnerable and critical elements of society.”

The report says ransom demands by cybercriminals ranged from thousands to millions of dollars, and attackers have improved their capabilities by accessing tools and services on the dark web.

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