Australia adds critical tech focus in new regional cyber strategy

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Australia adds critical tech focus in new regional cyber strategy

Offers $37.5m to support neighbouring countries.

Australia will bolster efforts to influence technology standards through diplomacy in a bid to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region under a new international cyber and critical technology engagement strategy. 

Foreign minister Marise Payne launched the strategy on Wednesday, pledging $37.5 million in additional funding to Australia’s vision for a “safe, secure and prosperous Australia, Indo-Pacific region and world enabled by cyberspace and critical technology”.

The strategy builds on the inaugural international cyber engagement strategy released in 2017, which established a coordinated, government-wide approach to cyber affairs, but adds new emphasis on the importance critical technologies amid growing geostrategic competition.

“Critical technologies can generate economic and military advantages, particularly for early adopters. This [could] significantly alter the balance of power among states,” the strategy states.

The government considers critical technologies as those that have the “capacity to significantly enhance, or pose risks to, Australia’s national interests” such as artificial intelligence, 5G and the internet of things.

The strategy indicates Australia will “enhance… cyber and critical technology-related international engagement using a coordinated whole-of-government approach”, led by Australia’s ambassador for cyber affairs and critical technology and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The government plans to do this by “increasing efforts to shape global standards on the development, use and uptake of critical technology” and “deterring malicious activity enabled by critical technologies”.

But it has ruled out regulating the technologies; “Australia’s focus in maintaining international peace and stability is on the use (or misuse) of critical technologies, rather than regulating the technologies themselves”.

The government will also set up a quarterly engagement group, chaired by the ambassador, which “brings together key government representatives with responsibility for pursuing Australia’s international cyber and critical technology agenda”.

Representatives from the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the Defence, Science and Technology Group and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Critical Technology Policy Coordination Office are some of the group members.

“The group will work to maximise opportunities to promote Australia’s cyber and critical technology interests and objectives internationally,” the strategy states, adding that the government will continue to strengthen engagement with “like-minded” democracies with its diplomatic network.

Diplomacy will focus on ensuring cyberspace and critical technologies “uphold and protect democratic principles”, “promote and protect human rights online” and advocate for diversity and gender equality.

Despite the new focus on critical technology, Payne said the government “will not diminish its focus on international cyber policy, recognising that an open, free, safe and secure cyberspace is necessary for sustained technological innovation”.

Elsewhere in the strategy, the government has pledged a further $20.5 million to “strengthen cyber and critical technology resilience in Southeast Asia” under the renamed cyber and critical tech cooperation program first introduced in 2017.

While it is not clear where the funding will be used, the strategy indicates that the program plans to “support the delivery of tailored CERTs in Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa, Fiji and the security operations centre in [the] Solomon Islands”.

The government also plans to contribute an additional $17 million to “support neighbours in the Pacific to strengthen their cyber capabilities and resilience, including to fight cybercrime, improve online safety, and counter disinformation and misinformation”.

The strategy also declares Australia “supports strong encryption as being fundamental to online security and trust”, while noting the challenges faced by law enforcement when trying to access encrypted communications for investigations.

“The technical challenges of achieving lawful access to encrypted or anonymised communications, and the legal challenge of obtaining the cooperation of the international communications industry, present new and increasingly difficult barriers to law enforcement and security agencies,” it states.

“Australia’s Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018 sets out Australia’s domestic legal approach to this challenge.”

The government will continue to support the “development and deployment of secure, transparent and economically-viable telecommunications infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific”, as it has already done for the Solomon Islands.

Payne also used the launch of the new strategy to reveal the first three projects to receive funding under round one of the Australia-India cyber and critical technology partnership research grants program.

Funded projects focus on “strengthening understanding of ethical frameworks and developing best practice on translating them into practical action and encouraging the development of technical standards”.

The project between the University of Sydney’s School of Computer Science and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras will, for instance, “address privacy and security challenges in next generation telecommunications networks”.

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