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Hack back: Australia set to attack Medibank crooks

Millions of people having their personal lives exposed in hacks of Optus and Medibank will drive “permanent change” in how Australia safeguards data, Cyber Security Minister Clare O’Neil says.

Speaking at a cyber security conference in Melbourne on Monday, Ms O’Neil said cyber crime has now become a kitchen table conversation for Australians as hundreds of families continue to have their medical histories exposed by a ransom group that infiltrated Medibank’s servers.

The federal government has tasked authorities to pursue the hackers, while several legal reviews are under way to tighten privacy laws and ransom payouts, Ms O’Neil said.

“We’ve all got responsibilities to change and do things differently,” Ms O’Neil said.

“That’s going to mean change at big Australian companies … and also as individuals thinking about how we look after our own data.”

Her comments came after Medibank hackers posted another tranche of customer data to a dark web blog on Sunday night, revealing information about mental health care claims and other illnesses.

It was the fourth and largest data dump so far, covering about 500 medical records, although the hackers want to wait until Friday to publish more, after Medibank’s AGM on Wednesday.

The Australian Federal Police and Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) will begin trying to disrupt the Russia-based criminals, Ms O’Neill said.

This approach was needed to combat rapidly growing cyber crime, she said, as new research predicts the number of corporate hacks will more than double in Australia in coming years.

Hacking the hackers

A new federal task force will commit 100 AFP and ASD agents to going after cyber criminals by actively trying to disrupt them.

On Monday, Ms O’Neil called it a “new model of policing”.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, a senior lecturer in cyber security at Edith Cowan University, said this is an emerging strategy for law enforcement.

He said it has been motivated by the extremely difficulty in catching these criminals because they are based in countries that are unlikely to help us.

Instead, going on the offensive offers another way to deter hackers from targeting Australia.

“Until now law enforcement hasn’t done this type of offensive operation – it could be a long shot,” Dr Ahmed said.

“It sends a strong message to any adversary so they think twice before targeting Australia.”

Chad Whelan, a professor in criminology at Deakin University, said the taskforce was essentially going to try to hack the hackers by finding their money and taking down websites they use.

He called it a “good step” towards making it harder for criminals to target Australians because they’ll have to focus more of their energy on defending against hacks rather than doing them.

“It’s this idea of hacking back offensive cyber operations … using the same tools and approaches they would seek to use against us to redirect against them,” Dr Whelan said.

US authorities have had success taking down dark web forums and criminal syndicates by targeting their web services with their own hacks, Dr Whelan said.

“These groups have all sorts of sophisticated and technical hardware to facilitate payments in cryptocurrency, so if you can track that you can try to take their money,” he said.

“You can also take down their infrastructure, reverse engineer attacks and direct them against the hackers.”

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