We already knew that Australia had a cyber army capable of running "computer network operations" — as broad a term as that is — but now we know that the Australian Signals Directorate's hacker team is actively being used to fight other countries, online, in the dark corridors of the internet.
Hacker image via Shutterstock
The Australian Financial Review can apparently reveal "for the first time" that the Australian Signals Directorate, and the hackers in its employ, have launched online attacks against targets in the Middle East that were (or are) conspiring against Australia.
That capability has been grown and developed over at least the last decade — a "computer network attack" team within the ASD, as part of the larger computer network operations team, tasked with building offensive digital warfare tools — rather than the intelligence gathering that the ASD more generally is responsible for.
The government also actively and openly looks for talented computer experts to join its ranks. Here's a slide from the ASD's pamphlet for potential hacker recruits (note that it only mentions "defence" against hackers):
The exact details of the hacks are unknown — and we don't expect to ever find out — but it involved action against "a non-democratic state that was pilfering our public and private secrets", and used ASD-designed malware that erased data on servers within that country and even destroyed server cooling systems, leaving the hardware "fried".
Those pieces of malware may also have been based upon software already developed by Australia's US and UK security service counterparts, the NSA and GCHQ. The Five Eyes international partnership that persists is not wildly popular, but it clearly provides ASD with an invaluable source of powerful tools and outside expertise.
Online attacks with physical consequences are nothing new — the US-built Stuxnet apparently took out Iran's nuclear weapon program, and a German steel mill was compromised and a blast furnace overloaded after hackers infiltrated plant systems. But until now, we haven't seen any detail about our own digital warfare capabilities. [AFR]