Western Australian company Austal is considered one of around three hundred critical defence contractors in Australia. That is why, when the organisation was hacked in October this year, the Federal Police and the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) stepped in to investigate.
Austal announced that its data management system had been breached by an unknown offender, accessing staff emails and phone numbers as well as crucial ship designs and drawings. Some of the information was later found for sale on the Dark Web. Austal is a major defence contractor, building and designing ships for the Australian Navy and Border patrol for over a decade. They also supply more than 300 commercial and defence vessels to 54 countries worldwide including the US and in the Middle East.
Interestingly, in a statement on 1 November, Austal held that “there is no evidence to date to suggest that information affecting national security nor the commercial operations of the company have been stolen: ship design drawings which may be distributed to customers and fabrication sub-contractors or suppliers are neither sensitive nor classified”. Despite these reassurances, the hack is a major concern, especially for other defence contractors. There are fears that if a company with major resources like Austal can be hacked, then others will be even more vulnerable. In their statement, the Federal Government highlighted that the incident “reinforces the serious nature of the cyber security threat faced by the defence industry, and the need for industry partners to put in place, and maintain, strong cyber defences”.
Less than two weeks after it was announced, the ACSC has held an Iranian criminal group responsible for the attack. While it remains unclear whether this group has ties to the Iranian Government, many have been quick to point out the interesting timing. The hack comes just days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia would be reviewing its support for the 2015 Iranian Nuclear deal, something the Iranian Government, and others for that matter, would be very displeased about. Nevertheless, the Iranian Government was quick to deny any involvement through the Embassy in Canberra.
However Fergus Hanson, a cybersecurity expert with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), noted that Iran is hugely active, with its sophisticated cyber capabilities putting it up there with China, Russia and North Korea in terms of its cyber warfare capabilities. Others have also noted that Austral is a major ship supplier to Middle Eastern counties such as Iman, Kuwait and Yemen, perhaps indicating that the hackers may have been trying to gain information regarding the capabilities of their neighbours. At first glance, it seems all the hackers were after was money through extortion, but in today’s political climate other, more sinister motives cannot be ruled out.
This event joins a long list of high-profile, extremely costly cyber-attacks that have targeted large companies, governments, individuals, third-party contractors and more. They highlight the need to invest strongly in cyber security and reinforce the serious nature of the threats being faced by modern businesses today.