Australia is recruiting 500 additional cyber spies and making its largest investment in digital security after a breakdown in diplomatic relations with Beijing and mutual allegations of espionage activity.
The A$1.35bn ($930m) investment over a decade follows a warning from Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, that the nation’s government, businesses and educational institutions have been under sustained attack from a sophisticated state actor.
He did not name the nation responsible for the attacks but cyber security analysts said their sophistication, broad-based nature and intent suggested China was the most likely culprit.
Announcing the new investment on Tuesday, Mr Morrison said malicious cyber activity against Australia was increasing in “frequency, scale and sophistication” and risked undermining the nation’s economy, security and sovereignty.
Internet security groups and governments have warned that cyber criminals and hacking groups are exploiting the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic to initiate a range of phishing and malware attacks.
The onslaught came as Canberra’s relationship with Beijing fell to its lowest level in a generation following Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
On Friday, Australian police and intelligence officers raided the home of Shaoquett Moselmane, a state MP in New South Wales, in an alleged foreign influence investigation involving Beijing, according to local media.
The Labor party promptly suspended the politician. Mr Moselmane told media on Monday he was not the subject of the investigation, which he added was looking at “certain other people, allegedly advancing the goals of a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China”.
Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure on Canberra, with the Global Times — a nationalist tabloid backed by the Chinese state — on Sunday accusing Australia of hypocrisy for voicing fears of Chinese espionage.
Canberra had been “waging an intensifying espionage offensive against China”, the newspaper said. As an example, the article said Chinese authorities in 2018 arrested Australians who were travelling in Shanghai with “a compass, a USB flash disk, a notebook, a mask, gloves and a map of Shanghai”, which the paper said was evidence of spying.
The report was just the “tip of the iceberg” of China’s evidence of Australian spying, the foreign ministry said on Monday. “As part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, Australia has consistently been obsessed with spying on relevant countries.”
Michael Shoebridge, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy institute, said there was no equivalence between Canberra and Beijing’s espionage activities. He said Canberra did not seek to pollute other nations’ domestic politics or engage in broad-based industrial espionage.
But he said Beijing’s warning was troubling as it might be a signal that Australian citizens living in China could be targeted on spying charges.
Mr Shoebridge said Canadian citizens were arrested following a rise in diplomatic tensions linked to the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in late 2018.
Last year Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer, was detained on espionage charges by Chinese authorities.