Sunday, 13 November 2022

David Speers interview with Minister Clare O’Neil

Topics: ​Cyber crime, Medibank and Optus cyber attacks, Migration review, Syria repatriation

DAVID SPEERS: Clare O'Neil, welcome to the programme. So you've announced that this task force of Australian Federal Police and Australian Signals Directorate personnel will be now given a permanent remit to keep going after the cyber hackers. Are you giving them extra resources or powers as well?

CLARE O'NEIL: Thank you, David, and good morning to you and your viewers. Mark Dreyfus and I announced with the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday that we're setting up a permanent standing operation, a partnership of new policing between the Australian Signals Directorate, which are the cyber guns of the Australian Public Service, and the Australian Federal Police. This is an entirely new model of operating for these two organisations. What they will do is scour the world, hunt down the criminal syndicates and gangs who are targeting Australia in cyber attacks and disrupt their efforts. This is Australia standing up and punching back. We are not going to sit back while our citizens are treated like this way and allow there to be no consequences for that.

DAVID SPEERS: OK, just to be clear, though, this task force has been in place for a while, though, hasn't it?

CLARE O'NEIL: No, that's incorrect. So this is a new operation, a permanent standing force of 100 of the best, most capable cyber experts in this country that will be undertaking this task for the first time, offensively attacking these people, David. So this is not a model of policing where we wait for a crime to be committed and then try to understand who it is and do something to the people who are responsible. We are offensively going to find these people, hunt them down and debilitate them before they can attack our country.

DAVID SPEERS: What's your expectation here of what they'll be able to achieve? Because we know whether it's in this new standing operation or in the previous task forces, they've been trying for a while to go after these hackers. The Americans have for years. They did manage to arrest a few of them about a year ago. What's your expectation about what they will realistically be able to achieve?

CLARE O'NEIL: Yes, well, I think there's a perception in the community that it's hard to do anything about cyber attacks and that's actually wrong. There's an enormous amount that we can do. I think we need to shift away from the sense that the only good outcome here is someone behind bars, because that can be hard when we've got people who are essentially being harboured by foreign governments and allowed to continue this type of activity. But what we can do is two really important things. The first thing is hunt these people down and disrupt their operations. It weakens these groups if governments like ours collaborate with the FBI and other police forces and intelligence agencies around the world. But the second important thing that we need to do is stand up and say that Australia is not going to be a soft target for this sort of thing. And if people come after our citizens, we are going to go after them.

DAVID SPEERS: So when you say they're being harboured by a foreign government, you're saying the Putin regime is harbouring these criminal gangs?

CLARE O'NEIL: Well, I think there's plenty of public reporting that would suggest that in some cases, there is turning a blind eye. Sometimes it goes beyond that. And it's not just Russia. But, David, this is a really important new crime type for our country. I wish we had been further along than we are now, but I can tell you we have done more about cybersecurity in this country in the last three months than was done in the preceding three years. Without question.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. The attacks have been escalating, particularly on big companies, Optus, Medibank. Do you think the efforts so far are working? And just coming back to that question around, what's your expectation? Is this new team going to be able to stop these sorts of big attacks that expose our data?

CLARE O'NEIL: Yeah. So I don't think anyone can promise that cyber attacks are going to go away. And one of the things that people need to understand is really how relentless this is at the moment. We had National Australia Bank come out a month or so ago saying they are subjected to 50 million cyber attacks a month. The ATO is subjected to 3 million cyber attacks a month. So we've got to understand here that we have got to adapt our whole approach and our whole thinking about this new crime type. Cybersecurity is hard and it's got to be a partnership between business, government and Australian citizens. And so what we need to do, and what I need to do in my job is drive a whole of nation effort where we see all of these groups in the community lift up their defences together.

DAVID SPEERS: Let's turn to what's being done here to protect our data, keep it safe. Medibank's Chief Executive, as we just saw, says it was the username and password of an employee who had high level access across the network that was stolen. Does that surprise you, even alarm you, that that's all it took to get into the database of millions of customers?

CLARE O'NEIL: So I don't want to provide a running commentary about the technical aspects of every cyber event in Australia, but I will say, I think what we saw with Optus and Medibank is two Australian companies that hold very personal information about Australians, and that means they owe big obligations to Australians to protect that information. And in both of those instances, the proof is in the pudding that the information did get out and that tells us that proper protections weren't in place.

DAVID SPEERS: So, Medibank did not have proper protections in place.

CLARE O'NEIL: Well, I have been quite direct about what I see as these two companies not having fulfilled their duties. But what I would say, David, is that we've got to come at this conversation with a sense of humility. Government holds more private information about Australians than anyone else in the community and we've got cyber issues that we need to fulfil here. So what I would like us to do is come together as a country and have the discussion, which you just started out before on the couch, about what we can do across our country to help this. Just let me make one more quick point. This is a voiable problem, David. 2022 has been a big wake up call for Australia. If I look at the US, it was probably last year where they had a number of really big attacks that brought home the personal impacts of this to their citizens. So it's time for us to wake up out of the cyber slumber and I want to push our country now to do better.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, but just to be clear, on Medibank, was this a sophisticated attack?

CLARE O'NEIL: So there are two criminal investigations underway at the moment into Optus and Medibank and it's not helpful for me to provide a running commentary.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, you did on Optus, you said it was not a sophisticated attack. So in relation to Medibank, was this a sophisticated attack?

CLARE O'NEIL: Look, David, I am very direct about how I communicate about these things. I have been direct in my discussion with Medibank and Optus. There are criminal investigations on foot, now. I've made it clear that I don't think the defences were where they needed to be. But I say again, we've got to come at this conversation with a bit of humility here. Government's got to step up to the plate too and this is a whole of nation effort here.

DAVID SPEERS: A bit of a different tone to what we heard from you on Optus. Why is that?

CLARE O'NEIL: Well, I don't accept there was any difference in tone. I've said pretty clearly that both companies needed to do better. Both, and I think both have come forward and apologised. I don't think Optus and Medibank are saying anything different.

DAVID SPEERS: Will there be any fines?

CLARE O'NEIL: It's important that we do accept that there is a countrywide problem here and as I said, 50 million attacks a month at NAB. We are, as a nation, being attacked virtually constantly and we need to work together to fix that.

DAVID SPEERS: Will there be any fines? I know you're trying to increase the fines, but the ones that exist at the moment for either Optus or Medibank.

CLARE O'NEIL: Yes, so that's not my decision. The Privacy Commissioner will make a decision about seeking fines there.

DAVID SPEERS: You're looking at ways to stop companies holding too much data for too long. Tell us a bit about what you're looking at there and whether this idea of some sort of national ID database bank is an option.

CLARE O'NEIL: Yes. So just on the data, that's something the Attorney General and I are very concerned about. I heard from lots of constituents during both Optus and Medibank where people hadn't even been a customer of those organisations for sometimes up to a decade and still were contacted to say that their data had been hacked. So what this is for us is a national vulnerability. And what we need to make sure is that companies are only holding data for the point in time where it's actually useful and the data is otherwise disposed of. So, Mark Dreyfus is undertaking a review of the Privacy Act at the moment, and he is looking at that. It's a complex question because, as you noted on the panel, there's a lot of State and territory regulation about the retention of data that needs to be taken account of. So that's something that will be looked at in the context of the Privacy Act review.

DAVID SPEERS: And paying ransoms. You've advised companies not to pay ransoms to hackers. Should it be made illegal?

CLARE O'NEIL: Look just on ransomware payments. So I think it's pretty clear that Medibank were right not to pay the ransom. Because if - I have never seen people that lack a moral code so clearly, then the hackers who are releasing data about -

DAVID SPEERS: And that data had already gone out.

CLARE O'NEI: - Australians online and the idea that we're going to trust these people to delete data that they have taken off and they have copied a million times is just, frankly silly. So I think that was the right decision. And we're standing strong as a country against this. We don't want to fuel the ransomware business model, David, and that is what happens when ransoms are paid.

DAVID SPEERS: So would you make it illegal to pay a ransom?

CLARE O'NEIL: So the way that we're thinking about the reform task, which is quite clearly needed here, is a bunch of quick wins, things that we can do fast. And the standing up of the police new police operation is one of those. There's some really big policy questions that we are going to need to think about and consult on, and we're going to do that in the context of the cyber strategy.

DAVID SPEERS: So you'll have a look at that?

CLARE O'NEIL: Yes, so we'll have a look at that.

DAVID SPEERS: At whether to make it illegal.

CLARE O'NEIL: That's correct.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, let's move to some other issues. The migration. During the week, you announced a review of Australia's migration system, which will help you develop, you say, a new national strategy for migration. It sounds pretty broad. What's it about? What are you trying to achieve here?

CLARE O'NEIL: So, if you look at our country, we've never done anything big or important or meaningful in the last 100 years without asking the best and brightest from around the world to come and help us do it. And when I look at the migration system today, we've come into office, this system is genuinely in a state of disrepair. It has no strategy. We've got enormous complexity in the system, literally hundreds of different visa categories and subcategories. It's expensive, it's complicated, it's bureaucratic. It's not working for migrants, it's not working for business, it's not working for the country. Now, when we look at Australia's future, we've got some really big challenges. We're facing transition to a climate neutral economy. We've got to increase our productivity. We've got to recruit a caring workforce from around the world. And given the context of our region, we need to build sovereign capabilities in a few key areas. The migration system is not the full answer to any of those things, but it's part answer to all of them. So I want to get this system working for the country.

DAVID SPEERS: One of the big problems, and you've identified this, is the long processing time for bringing in skilled workers. It's crazy how long some of the wait time is at the moment. Various suggestions out there to speed things up, get rid of the skills list and simply say to business, you've got to pay a higher minimum salary threshold and you can bring in who you want. Is that a good idea?

CLARE O'NEIL: So it's certainly something that the strategy will look at. And if I can just explain a little bit further for your viewers. One of the things we've got to do is make a shift in our thinking. We've spent almost the whole of the last decade in a big conversation about immigration, about how to keep people out of our country. We are in a global competition to attract the talent that we need for the future. With the US and Canada and New Zealand and all these other countries, they are rolling out the red carpet for the migrants they need. In Australia, it can take you two or three years to get a visa to come here and then we're only going to let you stay for a couple of years and send you back again. So we've actually got to think about this as a competitive mindset, where we want Australia to be a destination of choice and that's not what the migration system is doing at the moment.

DAVID SPEERS: We'll see what that review comes up with. Temporary protection visas. You promised to get rid of them. When is that going to happen?

CLARE O'NEIL: So it is a promise. We've got a number of people living in Australia on temporary protection visas who have been here -

DAVID SPEERS: Ten years.

CLARE O'NEIL: -for more than a decade. Yeah. And I think there's real desire in the community to allow those people to have some sense of permanency.

DAVID SPEERS: So, when will you do that?

CLARE O'NEIL: That was a commitment that we made at the election and we're working through it slowly and carefully, David. And I hope that your viewers see that one of the hallmarks of our government is deliberateless - deliberateness, calm, methodical, focus. And we are working through how we can do that.

DAVID SPEERS: Can you give me the time frame? I've heard from some people in this situation, being here a decade, still in limbo, in the next six months, next year, when are they going to be given some permanency?

CLARE O'NEIL: I'm not going to give you a time frame. I'm just going to tell you that we've committed to doing it, we will do it, but we're going to do it calmly, methodically and carefully.

DAVID SPEERS: What about the so called legacy caseload of 9000 or so people who came by boat back then but were denied a refugee visa, found not to be a refugee. People like the Biloela family, what's going to happen to them?

CLARE O'NEIL: Well, that's one of the complexities that we're still working through, David, and what you find when you come into office and the immigration system has been woefully neglected for almost a decade.

DAVID SPEERS: And so it's on your watch now. So, 9000 of these people, you're not sure what to do ?

CLARE O'NEIL: I don't have a straightforward answer to you yet. It's a really, really complex and difficult problem. We're five months into a new government, David. We will work through these issues over time.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay? This has been a problem for a decade.

CLARE O'NEIL: We'll work through it over time.

DAVID SPEERS: Your junior Minister, the Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles, has reportedly been the star attraction at some Labor Party fundraisers in the lead up to the Victorian election. Fundraisers to raise donations from Tamil and Indian communities. Are you okay with that or do you have a problem here?

CLARE O'NEIL: David, raising money is a part of the work that we do as members of Parliament.

DAVID SPEERS: But using the Immigration Minister as the draw card is the -

CLARE O'NEIL: This is not a Labour or a Liberal thing. I look at the teals and the Greens, they're raising far more money than I ever have for my campaign.

DAVID SPEERS: I'm asking you about using the Immigration Minister as a draw card to rattle a tin from ethnic communities. Is that different? Is that a problem?

CLARE O'NEIL: I don't see it as being any different, David. And I'm unsure as to why this is garnering media attention. I mean, last night around the country, there were probably half a dozen member members of Parliament doing exactly the same thing. And I'm actually not sure why he's been targeted.

DAVID SPEERS: They're not the Immigration Minister. I'm specifically asking about using the Immigration Minister as a fundraising draw card in ethnic communities. No problem?

CLARE O'NEIL: Yeah. Again, I'd say, David, this is a part of our role and Andrew is going to community events and talking to community groups. This is part of our job as members of Parliament and it's certainly no different to what I've seen previous and I'm not sure why this is garnering media interests. This is part of the work that we do.

DAVID SPEERS: Finally, a number of community groups and local mayors in Western Sydney have been concerned about the decision to resettle families of ISIS fighters in their suburbs. You've made it clear that you've done this based on national security advice. I accept that. But what about their concerns in Western Sydney? Are you going to or have you met with any of them to discuss what's happening?

CLARE O'NEIL: Well, a decision like this is, I think, always going to be one where there are different views expressed in the community and I absolutely respect people's right to have a different view. If I can just explain what the Australian government has done has brought back four women and 13 children, the oldest of which is a 13 year old girl, to resettle back in Australia. What I really want people to understand about this is that the people at the heart of this issue here are Australian citizens. And the reason I make that clear is because these people will be able to come back to Australia. They can demand, as of right, an Australian passport at any time. The national security question for us is, do we want these children growing up in a squalid refugee camp where they have no access to health and education, where they are subjected every day to radical, violent ideology that tells them to hate their own country? Or do we want them to grow up here with Australian values? So that's the choice for us.

DAVID SPEERS: But just quickly on this, I am asking about the concerns in the communities which are legitimate. Are you going to meet with them? Why haven't you met with them?

CLARE O'NEIL: I've talked to the members of Parliament who have raised those concerns, and if there are other members of Parliament that I haven't spoken to -

DAVID SPEERS: Are you going to talk to the mayor and the community leaders?

CLARE O'NEIL: So, the person who has been most vocal on this is Dai Le. I'm organising a detailed briefing from my department about the arrangements that have been made.

DAVID SPEERS: Why don't you go to Western Sydney, though, Minister and talk to the Yazidi and Assyrian leaders and say, look, here's why we're doing what we're doing and here's the monitoring that's in place. Why don't you do that?

CLARE O'NEIL: So, what I've spoken to the members of Parliament that who represent those areas about is just having a discussion about what the most constructive way for me to engage with those communities is. And I'm happy to do that, David. It's part of my work and I understand that this announcement will have different impacts on different types of Australians. I agree. I've got those obligations.

DAVID SPEERS: All right. So, you're open to doing that? Clare O'Neil, thanks for joining us.

CLARE O'NEIL: Thanks, David. Thanks so much.