Australia seeks ‘mature and transparent conversation’ about cyber conflict

International law applies to ‘cyber’ conflicts, Australia says

Australia and other nations have the right to develop so-called cyber weapons, but international laws still apply to “cyberspace,” according to the government’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy.

“Australia seeks a more mature and transparent conversation about what states are doing in cyberspace,” the the document states.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop today launched the three-year strategy, which outlines the government’s approach on a range of issues including digital trade, strengthening information security in the Asia Pacific region, and human rights and democracy online.

It is “no longer plausible to simply deny that states are active in cyberspace,” the document states.

Recognition that states have “legitimate rights to develop and use cyber capabilities” must be accompanied by an acknowledgement that those capabilities must be used in accordance with international law and norms of acceptable behaviour, the document states.

“Acknowledgement that states are developing cyber capabilities does not contradict Australia's commitment to maintaining a peaceful and stable online environment,” it says.

“Rather, acknowledging the existence of these capabilities fosters the understanding that, just like in the physical domains, states’ activities in cyberspace do not occur in a vacuum. States have rights, but they also have obligations.”

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, there were claims that Russian-backed hackers had sought to influence the outcome.

“Such actions have particular implications for connected, open and democratic societies like Australia,” the new strategy states. “This behaviour is unacceptable.”

While launching the government’s National Cyber Security Strategy last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly acknowledged for the first time that Australia possess an “offensive cyber capability”, housed within the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

“The use of such a capability is subject to stringent legal oversight and is consistent with our support for the international rules-based order and our obligations under international law,” Turnbull said.

“Acknowledging this offensive capability adds a level of deterrence. It adds to our credibility, as we promote norms of good behaviour on the international stage; and, importantly, familiarity with offensive measures enhances our defensive capabilities as well.”

Last year the ASD sought to boost its ranks as part of a move to strengthen the government’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.

In June 2017, the government announced that the ASD had been authorised to use its resources to target “organised offshore cyber criminal networks”.

“Increasingly, states are testing the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in cyberspace,” a statement released today by Bishop said.

“The Strategy puts Australia at the forefront of international efforts to promote and protect a peaceful and stable online environment – on which we all depend.

“Most cybercrime affecting Australians originates overseas. For this reason, Australia must engage internationally to shut down cybercrime safe havens. The Strategy aims to foster good cyber security practices in our region and improve our collective capacity to respond to global cyber incidents.”

Read more: Russian hackers stole U.S. cyber secrets from NSA: WSJ report

“We need a governing set of rules to ensure that nations and non-state actors operate in accordance with an agreed set of rules just as we have in the traditional environments,” Bishop told a press conference this morning.

The strategy states that international law “applies to states’ conduct in cyberspace just as it applies to states’ conduct in the physical domains”, although it notes that work on how particular principles of international law apply to “cyberspace” is still “a work in progress”.

The UN Charter “applies in its entirety to state actions in cyberspace”, including its prohibition on the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the right of states to act in individual or collective self-defence in response to an armed attack.

An annex to the strategy offers detail on how the government views the application of international law to states’ conduct in “cyberspace”, including application of international humanitarian law to “cyber operations”.

The full strategy document is available online.

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