Australian officials showed up launched its cyber diplomacy in Singapore this week, pledging to help Pacific nations combat risks like ransomware that come with their increasing digitization and to use Australia’s sanctions regime to punish cybercriminals.
Speaking at the Singapore government’s key cyber conference on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Tim Watts warned of “pervasive” ransomware attacks in the developed world and the “more damaging” threat ransomware poses to developing countries digitizing their economies.
He said high-income countries like Australia have an interest in fighting ransomware in developing countries.
“It is in all of our interests that cyber threats such as ransomware do not threaten the stability of the governments, economies and societies of the nations in our region,” Mr Watts said.
“And where developing countries lack the resources, expertise and scale to respond to this threat, developed countries must be ready to help.
“As high-income countries increasingly mobilize against the threat posed by ransomware to their own national interests, we must ensure that developing countries are not left behind.”
Mr Watts was Labor’s cybersecurity spokesman in opposition but switched to foreign policy in government, where the department implements an international cyber and critical technology engagement strategy.
The strategy, which was launched with a delay last year, is accompanied by a package of measures that support regional neighbors in building and maintaining their own cyber resilience.
Mr Watts criticized the opposition’s strategy at the time, particularly for failing to take action against ransomware.
Speaking at Singapore International Cyber Week, Mr Watts said Australia will do more for its Pacific neighbors under the new government, building on existing “cyber resilience foundation” work with Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga , Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
“Australia’s new government is committed to listening to the voices of the Pacific islands and restoring Australia’s position as the first partner of choice for our Pacific family,” he said.
“We want to make a unique Australian contribution as the partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific – reliable, showing up, respectful, listening, transparent and open.”
Australia is also trying to deter ransomware through its own autonomous sanctions program, which includes a “significant cyber incident” regime introduced late last year.
Mr Watt said the sanctions against cyber incidents would impose costs on individuals and organizations – “including the bodies of all states” – determined to engage in malicious cyber activity.
Under the regime, the Minister of Foreign Affairs can appoint a person or entity for targeted financial sanctions and declare a person for a travel ban if the person or entity caused or attempted to cause, assisted in causing or was otherwise involved in a significant cyber incident it.
Mr Watts said it allows the government to target cybercriminals and is “a useful part of the cyber diplomacy toolkit”.
“It’s not easy. Sanctions are not a trivial exercise from a technical point of view and require careful analysis. But conceptually, sanctions regimes are a useful tool to respond to and deter malicious cyber activities,” he said.
“We recognize that the use of sanctions of this nature would not be without international precedent.”
Australia’s cyber-sanctions regime can be coordinated with like-minded nations and offers a useful tool to combat ransomware, Mr Watts said.
“We look forward to continuing to work with like-minded countries to consider how we can impose sanctions on ransomware gangs and their supporters.”
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