CyberCX experts believe a recent hacking operation targeting Nauru, which included files on Australia’s offshore processing centres, was “intended to influence” this month’s federal election.
Earlier this month, more than 285,600 files stolen from Nauru’s Police Force were leaked online including details of alleged human rights abuses in detention centres.
International hacking group Anonymous was initially believed to be responsible but a new report by private security firm CyberCX has concluded another “malign” actor may have been involved given how soon Australia’s election is and several technical abnormalities connected to the hack.
According to a CyberCX report titled A question of timing: Examining the circumstances surrounding the Nauru Police Force hack and leak, the diplomatic tension between Australia and other Pacific countries, in particular Solomon Islands, could have influenced the leak at this time.
“Hack-and-leak operations are criminal activities [unlike whistleblowing, journalism or political speech] and have a history of being used by malign actors to undermine open and transparent political debate and democratic processes including elections.”
The report concedes there is “insufficient evidence to definitively attribute this incident” with further investigation required to identify the culprit.
This comes after Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews’ accusation is consistent with her conservative Liberal Party’s argument that Beijing wants the centre-left Labor Party to win the 21 May election because Labor lawmakers were less likely to stand up to Chinese economic coercion.
AP reports that Labor has described the government’s inability to prevent the deal announced by the Chinese and Solomon’s governments last week as Australia’s biggest foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.
Andrews – who is responsible for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the nation’s main domestic spy agency, and has access to classified secrets from other intelligence agencies – noted that Australians should be “taking notice of and paying some attention to” the timing of the Solomon announcements.
“We talk about political interference and that has many forms,” Andrews added.
Australia angered China in 2018 by passing national security laws that ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said at the time the government was prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations.
Jim Chalmers, a senior Labor lawmaker, dismissed the possibility of China attempting to use its Solomon deal to influence the Australian election.
“Even by the incredibly low standards of this government, I thought what Karen Andrews said was remarkably desperate and remarkably unhinged,” Chalmers said.
“The Australian people will determine who wins this election.”
John Blaxland, Australian National University’s professor of international security and intelligence studies, questioned whether Andrews was drawing on classified intelligence briefings in her comments on the Solomons.
“It certainly is plausible that they timed it this way. They would’ve been mindful of what’s happening in the elections,” Blaxland said.
“I’d be very surprised if China wanted to go public on siding with one side or the other because that’s basically a poison chalice you’re handing to that side of politics,” Blaxland added.
Blaxland suspected Beijing and Paris would both welcome a change of government in the hope of resetting their bilateral relationships with Australia.
China’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Morrison’s elevation to prime minister in 2018 after the Liberal Party dumped his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, who had banned foreign interference.
“China stands ready to work with the new Australian government to move forward bilateral ties along the right track,” a ministry official said at the time.
However, bilateral relations have continued to sour.
France was incensed in September when Australia dumped a $66 billion contract for French-build conventional submarines. The United States and Britain will instead provide Australia with a nuclear-powered fleet.
The government boasts the new submarine deal is evidence of its superiority over Labor on national security.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry attacked Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s warning that Australians must prepare for war because of the threat from China and global insecurity spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Certain Australian politicians often seek selfish political gains by making wild remarks to smear China and clamour for war,” Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink added that the United States had a fundamental concern with the lack of transparency in Chinese activities in the Pacific islands.
“Only a handful of people in a very small circle in the Solomons had seen the detail of the Chinese pact,” Kritenbrink said.
Labor announced a range of measures that it would implement in government to increase Australia's engagement in the Pacific.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that by blaming the government, Labor was siding with China in the dispute over the Solomons pact that has raised fears of a Chinese naval presence less than 2,000 kilometres off the northeast Australian coast.
“They are playing politics with the Pacific and the only ones who are benefitting from Labor's attacks on the government is the Chinese government,” Morrison said.