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What caused the Optus outage and how it exposed Australia’s communications framework

Optus’s national outage has sparked serious concerns about the resiliency of Australia’s telecommunications networks as the country’s reliance on mobile technology was exposed.

Most Optus customers woke on Wednesday to discover their mobile phones without reception, business payment systems not connecting and devices that required internet connection not working.

Dr Mark Gregory, senior lecturer at RMIT University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the outage shows that telecommunications companies are still “running on single points of failure”.

“This is really unacceptable today,” he said.

“The possibility that this could be a target for an infrastructure cyberattack is quite likely.”

Optus has slowly restored services since the outage occurred during the early hours of Wednesday, but the exact cause and full implications are yet to be revealed.

Faraz Hasan, director of research services at the University of New England, speculated the cause of the outage was likely a software issue due to its timing of the outage and how long it took to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a good overall picture, especially from a customer’s point of view,” he said.

“From a service provider of communications, you would expect more proactive communication.”

Fragile infrastructure

The outage has impacted essential services, including public transport, emergency services and hospitals, which rely on the Optus network for phone, internet and backup systems.

Dr Dennis Desmond, a cybersecurity expert from the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the breadth and duration of the outage is a warning that Australia remains vulnerable to attacks from nation-states and criminal organisations.

“The need for Australia to improve and develop its cybersecurity defensive posture remains unquestioned,” he said in a statement.

“The government must do more to increase the number of cybersecurity professionals able to defend Australia’s critical infrastructure and secure its vital data and informational assets.”

Engineers Australia also highlighted the cascading risk associated with technology failure and urged businesses to access their systems for weak points.

“When one system fails, it can trigger a domino effect across multiple systems, amplifying negative impacts,” chief engineer Jane MacMaster said.

“Cascading risk can result from various factors, such as extreme weather events, cyberattacks or geopolitical events.”

While there is currently no evidence of a cyberattack being responsible for the outage, Australia’s second-largest mobile carrier has already experienced one major data breach.

Optus faces a potentially mammoth class action after the data of nearly 10 million former and current customers was stolen by criminal hackers last year, forcing the telco into damage control.

The personal data included names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, license numbers and passport numbers.

Optus has already had one major data breach in recent memory. Photo: Getty

Calls for regulation

Michelle Rowland, Minister for Communications, said the outage shows how essential telecommunications infrastructure is to everyday life.

“We know from previous experience that when this occurs, this is highly detrimental to consumers,” she said.

“It causes a wide degree of angst, but it also does have those economic impacts.”

She said the federal government will do everything necessary to ensure emergency Triple Zero phone lines are accessable and provide clear communication to impacted people when asked what the federal government can do.

Gregory said more needs to be done to ensure city-wide or national outages don’t occur in the future.

“The lack of transparency needs to be fixed: either the companies fix it, or the government needs to regulate to fix it,” he said.

“If the companies can’t get their act together, then we as consumers rely upon the government to take action.”

Telecommunications are regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, but any changes to their governing legislation would need to pass through parliament.

Gregory said Optus failed to communicate with its customers after people were informed by other sources before the company released any information.

“They were internally trying to market and manage this situation, if you look at what they’ve put on Facebook it is really just nonsense,” Gregory said.

“The reason we have these single points of failure is that the companies are looking to save money wherever they can.”

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