Hackers Minutes Away From Crippling Australian Electrical Grid

Up to three million Australian homes were minutes away from losing power after a major energy network was hit by a ransomware attack from hackers in November.

Queensland’s CS Energy was subjected to a sustained ransomware attack on Nov. 27, in what the chief executive officer has described as a worryingly accelerating trend.

The attack was only stopped at the last minute before it had the potential to shut down the company’s two thermal coal plants.

Had the damage taken hold, it could have taken 35,000 megawatts of power out of the grid, leaving between 1.4 and three million homes in the dark.

Even without reaching the generators, the attack was reportedly able to disable a number of the company’s corporate systems, with many employees being denied access to their emails.

“CS Energy moved quickly to contain this incident by segregating the corporate network from other internal networks and enacting business continuity processes,” said CS Energy CEO Andrew Bills.

“We immediately notified relevant state and federal agencies and are working closely with them and other security experts.”

Bills noted that cyber events are “a growing trend in Australia and overseas.”

“This incident may have affected our corporate network, but we are fortunate to have a resilient and highly skilled workforce who remain focused on ensuring CS Energy continues to deliver electricity to Queenslanders.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted on Wednesday that Australian cyber authorities played a crucial role in stopping the attack.

“The Australian Government took early action in engaging with those who were directly under threat, and we were able to ensure that the worst of those scenarios did not eventuate,” Morrison said.

“So it was the early action of our cyber authorities that avoided a bad outcome there. And I want to thank them for the great work they do. We do know that cyber threats to Australia are real, both in a defence sense, but also just in a civil space as well.”

Morrison also highlighted that criminal actors were looking to take advantage of Australians and Australian businesses.

“It’s so important that Australian businesses listen carefully and take the advice of our cyber security agencies,” he said. “Australia is one of the world leaders in this space, and that’s why we could enter into an agreement with the United States because they know how good our people are in this space. And that was one of the attractions for working with Australia because we complement one another with the United Kingdom, and we are pacesetters when it comes to cyber security.”

Morrison also refused to confirm earlier reports that the attack was carried out by Chinese hackers after News Corp publications on Wednesday linked the attack to Chinese hackers, citing sources familiar with the matter.

However, Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan told Nine Network on Wednesday that the attack underscores how important it was to secure Australia and reduce the country’s dependence on China, “who are acting like a bully in our region,”

“This is not an attack or a suspected attack on an Australian government agency… It’s on a private company in Queensland.”

Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told The Epoch Times on June 19 that Beijing is most likely the “state-based cyber actor” behind the increasing cyber-attacks on Australia.

“When it comes to Australia, the Russians don’t have the intent, they don’t have the same deep interests that Beijing has with Australia because of the massive two-way relationship and because Australia’s decisions in our national interest have influenced gloal debates in ways Beijing doesn’t like,” Shoebridge said.

“The Chinese scale of cyber activity is larger because they’re wealthier, they have a lot of homegrown technologies they can use, and also it’s a state-corporate endeavour where state-owned and private corporations can be compelled to work for the state, and that adds to their capability.”

Cyber crimes have been thrown into sharper focus this year as a report from the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), a department of the ASD, Australia’s front line of defence against cyber incidents, showed cyber attacks has increased by 13 percent in the last 12 months.

A quarter of all cyber attacks on Australia had targeted energy, water, telecommunications, health services, and other critical infrastructure, noted Rachel Noble, director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – a government agency responsible for intelligence, cyber security, and offensive operations on Nov. 18.

Earlier this year, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said cybersecurity was her “number one priority.”

“We are very much aware that many nations—including China—have significantly increased their cyber capability. Australia is also increasing its legitimate and lawful cyber activity as well.”

In November, Australia passed a new law that could see the government install software on the systems of private businesses in response to cyber-attacks–while threatening any cyber actors with swift retaliation.

Nina Nguyen

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Nina Nguyen is a Vietnamese reporter based in Sydney and focuses on Australian news. Contact her at nina.nguyen@epochtimes.com.au.

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