Australia’s spy chief has revealed that critical infrastructure, including the electricity grid and water supplies, could not have been adequately protected if China’s Huawei or ZTE had been allowed to build the country’s new 5G mobile networks.
In the strongest comments by a government official since the ban was handed down on Chinese companies in August, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, said the stakes in 5G “could not be higher”.
“Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount,” he said.
The warnings coincide with a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that reveals Australian universities are collaborating with Chinese military scientists at unprecedented levels while failing to mitigate against the risk that such co-operation might harm national security.
The report by the institute claims some People’s Liberation Army scientists are hiding behind civilian research “fronts” to obscure their military status.
“To date, there’s been no significant public discussion on why universities should be directly contributing to the technology of a non-allied military,” report author Alex Joske warns.
“Importantly, there’s also little evidence that universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China.”
The report will touch a raw nerve with Australia’s university sector, which, mindful of protecting revenue streams from overseas students, has been dismissive or defensive in response to concerns that Beijing is clandestinely interfering in the tertiary sector to assert political control over Chinese students or harvest research for strategic purposes.
Mr Joske’s report seizes on figures suggesting that “five eyes” countries – Western allies who share intelligence – are the biggest hosts of PLA scientists, led by Australia on a per capita basis.
The policy institute’s report does not identify any actual breaches involving Australian universities.
More than 2500 Chinese military scientists have been sent abroad as students or visiting scholars in the past decade, the report finds.
The Chinese Communist Party is aggressively expanding its military capacity, including via efforts to align civilian research with military aims.
In his speech in Canberra on Monday night, Mr Burgess said 5G would soon sit at the top of Australia’s critical infrastructure list.
He said 5G was not just about faster data, but the new network would eventually be used to operate everything from power and water networks to self-driving cars and remote surgery.
“This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information – it is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend,” he said.
Mr Burgess did not specifically mention Huawei or ZTE, but said it was no longer sufficient to confine “high-risk vendors” to the edges of a telecommunications network.
“The distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks. That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network,” he said.
Mr Burgess also warned Australian companies contemplating vigilante tactics against hackers by launching their own cyber counter-attacks that they would be breaking the law.
Fairfax Media understands that some major Australian firms have contemplated taking dramatic steps against potential cyber threats by directing counter-hacking against them.
Mr Burgess, who took over the agency in January after a four-year stint as Telstra’s chief information officer, said he found such talk concerning, as it would be illegal.
“While it is pleasing to see businesses talking about cybersecurity … more worryingly I’ve heard of boardrooms in Australia contemplating the prospect of hacking back to defend themselves against potential attacks,” Mr Burgess said.
“That should not be part of any organisation’s cybersecurity strategy. That would be an illegal act here in Australia.”
Mr Burgess also revealed his traditionally secretive organisation’s eavesdropping skills and intelligence analysis have been used to halt advanced terrorism plans, disrupt organised crime gangs overseas and even to help secure the release of Australians taken hostage abroad.
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