Cyber terrorists 'a real threat'

DRINKING water supplies, sanitation and telephone exchanges would be prime targets in the event of a cyber attack on the region, a University of Wollongong expert has warned.

Dr Katina Michael, an associate professor in the university's informatics faculty, said a computer-based attack could be launched for a variety of reasons, ranging from corporate espionage to terrorism, and the consequences might be devastating.

"The main things to hit are [telephone] exchanges but also water supply - water is very much linked to electricity - and so on. Sewerage is another one - as soon as you get rid of sanitation in an area, we have the spread of disease," she said.

Dr Michael, who also lectures at the university's Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, said Telstra exchanges, which act as a vital hub for internet and telephone services, were particularly vulnerable.

"If they wanted to knock out an exchange ... it's probably quite easy [because] it's a single building and unprotected; you walk past Telstra exchanges," she said.

And a strike at the region's economic heart via the computer systems of BlueScope Steel wouldn't be difficult "at all".

She said the biggest risk came from so-called "social engineering" attacks, where employees are tricked into giving up sensitive details like usernames and passwords, which are then used to "walk through the front door" of computer systems.

A BlueScope spokesman said all computer services at the steelworks were outsourced to multi-national technology-services company CSC, which has an office in Coniston.

A CSC spokeswoman said the company could not discuss individual clients, but said CSC was at the forefront of cyber defence.

It is also possible that Wollongong City Council's IT systems could come under attack, bringing vital services to a halt, or resulting in the theft of ratepayers' personal details from databases.

In August, a teenage hacker from rural Victoria gained unrestricted access to the files of Ballarat City Council, resulting in a week-long shutdown of the council's computer network.

A Wollongong City Council spokeswoman said the threat of a cyber attack was taken "very seriously".

Dr Michael's warning came as more than 50 Australian organisations faced simulated cyber attacks as part of an international security exercise dubbed Cyber Storm III.

Citation: Matthew Jones, October 9, 2010, "Cyber terrorists 'a real threat'", Illawarra Mercury, p. 21.