A former head of the US National Security Agency has warned Australia and other Western nations are at a disadvantage in their rising cyber battles with China, because China is willing to take more drastic actions to advance its interests.
Admiral Michael Rogers, who served as the 17th director of the NSA and advised both Barack Obama and current US President Donald Trump, told a Credit Suisse forum on global super trends, that Australia needed to be realistic about the heightened cyber threat posed by China.
“Let’s not pretend that these things aren’t happening or ignore this activity… We have to acknowledge that they’re a competitor that is willing to do things we’re not… and who does not automatically go along with the structures we’ve built [in the last 70 years],” Mr Rogers said.
“I don’t think any nation in the world can say right now that they are where they want to be [in terms of their cyber defences].
“Australia has just developed and released a cyber security strategy… and we have to give that time to play out, but all of us need to ask ourselves what we need to be doing differently… We can’t keep doing the same thing but expect different results.”
Before releasing its cyber strategy Prime Minister Scott Morrison had made a rare declaration that the country was suffering persistent cyber attacks from a “sophisticated state-based actor,” which was understood to mean China.
The government said the number of attacks had increased by 330 per cent since the start of the year, and were targeting government, industry, critical industry, education, health and essential services providers.
The theft of intellectual property was considered to be a major motivating factor.
Mr Rogers’ remarks came as relations between Australia and China deteriorated last week, when The Australian Financial Review’s China correspondent Michael Smith and the ABC’s Bill Birtles had to return home after nerve-racking encounters with China’s Ministry of State Security.
They were the last two foreign correspondents for Australian news outlets in the country. It also emerged on Monday that a Chinese military contractor has compiled profiles on more than 35,000 prominent Australians, ranging from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes.
The company, Zhenhua Data lists the People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party among its main clients and boasts of waging “hybrid warfare” and manipulating reality via social media.
The relationship between Australia and China has frayed substantially since the federal government blocked Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from supplying equipment for the construction of the next-generation 5G mobile network.
The US and UK have followed suit in banning Huawei from their own networks. The US is also forcing ByteDance to sell its US portion of social media app TikTok, or risk it being banned on September 15.
Mr Rogers said a blanket ban on Chinese tech businesses in Western countries would be unnecessary, but he agreed with taking a cautious approach to any business, like Huawei, which is involved in critical infrastructure.
“You have to consider, are you comfortable with the idea of there being Chinese technology in certain aspects of your infrastructure or your broader social constructs,” he said.
“It’s not a matter of China being bad and the rest of the world being good, but in some areas there is elevated risk to our long-term national security and long-term economic competitiveness in such a way that we should not allow or endorse a China-based solution.”
Mr Rogers, who retired from the NSA in January 2018, also weighed in on the possibility of a big tech break-up in the US.
Currently the White House is watching with interest the local competition regulator’s push for the tech giants Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news. It was reported earlier this month that Google is facing an antitrust case in the US ahead of the Presidential elections.
Mr Rogers said the current period would test the boundaries between the corporate sector and government, acknowledging that tax laws in particular were formulated in a time when businesses were predominantly “bricks and mortar” and weren’t necessarily conducive to the digital age.
But, he cautioned regulators from being too heavy-handed when it came to policing the tech giants.
“If we’re not careful and we take this to the extremes, we will kill the geese that have laid the golden eggs,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ll see an immediate break-up per se, but the government is asking some pretty fundamental questions of these companies.”
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