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Home / Analysis / Constructing an open, free, secure cyberspace in the face of rising threats

Constructing an open, free, secure cyberspace in the face of rising threats

Authoritarian states have embraced cyberspace to undermine liberal democracies. Let’s fight back

analysis Updated: Sep 03, 2019 18:34 IST
Tobias Feakin
Tobias Feakin
Only by acting together can we ensure we achieve the full potential of cyberspace and digital technology to benefit all countries and all people
Only by acting together can we ensure we achieve the full potential of cyberspace and digital technology to benefit all countries and all people(SHUTTERSTOCK)

This week, I will be in India to discuss the transformative role of cyberspace and technology, and better understand what Australia and India can do together to ensure that we reap the benefits of digital connectivity, while protecting ourselves from the risks. India has an enormous and vibrant community of digital natives, and is an active contributor to international discussions on the future of cyberspace and digital technology. This makes it vital that the two countries are close partners in promoting a cyberspace that is open, free and secure.

Cyberspace and digital technologies are rapidly transforming the world, connecting people to new opportunities for learning, employment and engagement with the global community. But this connectivity comes with risks to our security. This is increasingly undermining the trust of the public and governments in cyberspace.

Across the world, there has been a clear upswing in the use of cyberspace to interfere in, and undermine, trust in democratic processes. From the highly publicised activities around the 2016 United States elections, allegations of interference in France’s 2017 presidential elections and in Ukraine, it is obvious that democracies are vulnerable to manipulation and interference from malicious cyber activity. These incidents demonstrate that the openness inherent to healthy democratic systems has come to be viewed by irresponsible state actors as a vulnerability to be exploited.

Australia has not gone unscathed — Prime Minister Scott Morrison disclosed earlier this year that Australia’s Parliament House, and the networks of major political parties, were hacked by a sophisticated State actor.

We have witnessed a bifurcation of the Internet — where it is used to promote democracy on one hand and authoritarianism on the other. Authoritarian states have embraced cyberspace as a means to undermine liberal democracies. In short, one of the greatest benefits and opportunities of cyberspace — its freedom and openness — has been turned into a weapon that has been, and will continue to be, used against us, unless countries like Australia and India push back.

International cooperation is the key to overcoming this threat. Never has there been a more important time to be clear about the rules in cyberspace. Through discussion in the United Nations, the international community has made good progress defining the boundaries of what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour in cyberspace. Now, we must ensure there are effective consequences for those who don’t follow the rules.

Australia has started taking a stronger stand against malicious cyber actors. When it is in our interests to do so, Australia publicly attributes cyber incidents, especially those with the potential to undermine global economic growth, national security and international stability. Since 2018, we have publicly attributed malicious cyber activity to North Korea, Russia, Iran and China.

We have done so in the good company of a broad range of international partners that are equally concerned about activity in cyberspace that oversteps agreed standards of responsible state behaviour. By working together, our message is stronger and perpetrators are less able to obfuscate their responsibility through false denials. As liberal democracies, we must set the standard and be responsible State actors ourselves.

Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision is for a region that is free, open and inclusive where disputes are resolved peacefully, without force or coercion. We want international rules and norms to be respected, countries to operate transparently, and the sovereignty of all States, big and small, to be protected. This applies equally in cyberspace as it does in the real world.

The benefits of cyberspace and digital connectivity are clear, as are the risks we face from malicious and irresponsible state behaviour in cyberspace. We all need to stand firm against this rising tide. We need to cooperate, share lessons learned, and work together to combat these attempts to undermine our political systems and the values we hold so dear. And we need to call out — privately and publicly — those actors who seek to undermine us. Only by acting together can we ensure we achieve the full potential of cyberspace and digital technology to benefit all countries and all people.

It is vital that countries such as India and Australia, which value democracy and the rule of law, work together to protect ourselves and the values that are the bedrock of our democracies.

Tobias Feakin is Australia’s ambassador for cyber affairs

The views expressed are personal