The NSW Government Department of Resources and Energy has revealed that it was the target of a cyber attack in December 2015, during the time several major projects were being considered. This includes the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine, indirectly controlled by the Chinese government — which experts say is a possible source of the attack.
The attack was in the form of an increase in "virus/security activity attempting to impact systems at the Division of Resources and Energy (DRE) office in Maitland", according the the department, and steps were taken to increase security after the activity was detected.
"We do not believe that the attacks penetrated our systems or any data was accessed at this time," the statement reads.
The New South Wales Opposition is calling for further investigation, as reported by ABC's The World Today, on the back of warnings from experts that such a definitive conclusion can not be made.
"These reports are highly disturbing," says the Opposition spokesman for resources, Adam Searle. "I have sought a briefing from the minister and his agency as soon as possible. The Opposition will be seeking an assurance from the Baird Government that the integrity of the commercially sensitive data held by the Department of Industry has not been compromised."
Executive director of the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, has explained "You don't always know if you've been compromised in terms of cyber attack, so I think perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be to say they don't think they've been compromised on this occasion."
"I think the national security agencies of the Federal Government are well protected because they've been working in this area for a very long period of time. When you get to state governments and the private sector, I think there's a very variable degree of IT security and you can't be confident that people are necessarily taking all of the steps that are needed to protect information."
In regards to the claims that China may be responsible for the attack, Jennings says "I think it is possible because we know China has one of the most aggressive cyber intelligence gathering policies around the world and that they are constantly looking to gather information, intellectual property, from the private sector as well as national security information from government departments."
"And in the case of Australia, obviously China has a deep interest in our approach to natural resources."
Jennings does confirm that there would be could be "a number of parties who want to seek that information."
There have also been concerns raised by the Opposition about the amount of time it has taken for the hacking attempt to be revealed.
Searle says, "It has been now several weeks since this occurred, it's only been made public by the media, but putting that to one side, the Opposition wants to work constructively in partnership with the Government on this matter because it is so important to the state's entire economy."
The Department of Resources and Energy has been contacted for further comment.