China has launched a “massive” cyber attack on the computers of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology putting several government agencies at risk, according to government officials who spoke with ABC.
Besides forecasting the weather and serving as a hub for environmental intelligence, the bureau’s computers also provide and secure “critical information” for an array of government agencies, ABC reports.
The intellectual property and national scientific research that is stored on the bureau’s computers, as well as potential access to information stored by government agencies, could make the bureau’s computer system very lucrative to nation states.
“They [hackers] are looking for the weakest link and so if you go into an agency, which may have a level of security clearance, but perhaps not as high as central parts of the national security committee, maybe there are weaknesses they can exploit which will enable them to then move into other, more highly-valuable targets,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
One link to the bureau’s system traces back to the Department of Defense at Russell Offices in Canberra.
During a potential conflict, Australia’s capacity to mobilize its military and aircraft would be affected by how accurately it can forecast the weather. The bureau provides climate forecasting, tsunami warnings, tide predictions, and even space weather.
The importance of the bureau’s services means it can’t simply be turned off for repair. While it has not denied the attack, the bureau maintains the system remains operational providing “reliable, ongoing access to high-quality weather, climate, water and oceans information to its stake holders.”
One official told ABC recovering from the attack could cost millions.
China denies having orchestrated or supporting the breach.
“As we have reiterated on many occasions, the Chinese government is opposed to all forms of cyber attacks,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.
Jennings, however, says there is evidence implicating China in the attack, which it calls “consistent with what we know of how Chinese intelligence operates.”
The most detailed, publicly-available study of China’s cyber-war capabilities was published in 2013 by the American security firm Mandiant. Its researchers managed to trace cyber attacks straight to the People’s Liberation Army building in Shanghai, Unit 61398.
Mandiant claimed the unit was “able to wage such a long-running and extensive cyber espionage campaign in large part because it receives direct government support.”