Chinese hackers ‘stole Australian HQ plans’

Foreign minister Bob Carr: Refused to discuss ABC claims. Picture: Getty
Foreign minister Bob Carr: Refused to discuss ABC claims. Picture: Getty
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Chinese hackers have stolen the blueprints of a new multi-million-dollar Australian spy headquarters.

Plans for the A$630 million (£404m) Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) complex were taken in a cyber-attack on a building contractor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on Monday night.

They contained details such as communications cabling, server locations and security systems and were tracked to a Chinese server, claimed ABC.

Australia security analyst Des Ball said the theft left the yet-to-be-completed spy HQ vulnerable to future cyber attack.

“You can start constructing your own wiring diagrams, where the linkages are through telephone connections, through wi-fi connections, which rooms are likely to be the ones that are used for sensitive conversations, how to surreptitiously put devices into the walls of those rooms,” said Mr Ball.

The hackers also stole confidential information from the department of foreign affairs and trade, which houses the overseas spy agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

The ABC report, which did not reveal sources, said Chinese hackers had targeted other Australian companies, including steel-maker Bluescope Steel and military and civilian communications manufacturer Codan.

The Green party – upon which the centre-left Labour Party relies to maintain its minority government – said the reported hacking was a “security blunder of epic proportions”, and called for an inquiry, but the government refused to confirm the security breach.

“It is time we had an independent inquiry into the whole sorry history of the Asio building and the extent to which hacking has compromised its capacity to serve the purpose for which it was intended,” Green leader Christine Milne said.

She urged that no more money be spent on the building until an inquiry was held into the hacking allegation and alleged security compromise.

The alleged hacking would appear to be “an extremely serious breach” to Australia’s intelligence-sharing allies, including the United States, Ms Milne said.

The Asio building, being built near Australia’s top secret Defence Signals Directorate, is supposed to have some of the most sophisticated hacking defences in the country, which is part of a global electronic intelligence gathering network including the US and the UK.

But its construction had been plagued by delays and cost increases, with some builders blaming late changes made to the internal design in response to cyber attacks.

Australian officials, like those in the US and other western nations, have made cyber attacks a security priority following a growing number of attacks from resource-hungry China.

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei was last year barred from bidding for construction contracts on a vast new Australian high-speed broadband network amid fears of cyber espionage.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday said China opposed hacking in any form and challenged the ABC report.

“Since it is technically untraceable, it is very difficult to find the source and identify the hacker,” Mr Hong said. “Therefore we have no idea what is the evidence for their report in which they make the claim with such certainty.”

Asio, Australia’s main spy agency, has grown rapidly since 9/11, and needs the new headquarters to house its growing workforce that has trebled to almost 1,800 staff in a decade.

Tobias Feakin, a security analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that if a security breach had occurred, it could affect intelligence sharing with western allies.

“There is no doubt that instances like this, if proved true, create a period of difficulty,” Mr Feakin said. “But one thing that would happen is that there would be mutual assistance provided to be able to plug that gap and no intelligence agency could possibly allow that kind of breach to continue.”

Foreign minister Bob Carr refused to discuss the allegations but said the claims did not jeopardise Australia’s ties with its main trading partner, China. “It’s got absolutely no implications for a strategic partnership,” he said. “We have enormous areas of co-operation with China.”