Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has joined the board of fast-growing cyber protection firm Kasada and invested $1 million in the start-up, saying the increasing foreign threat revealed by Scott Morrison on Friday highlighted the wisdom of his decision to ban Huawei from Australia’s 5G network.
Mr Turnbull told The Australian Financial Review that signals intelligence in the cyber security space is the most challenging single area of national security, due to fast-changing threats and the need for businesses to meet the highest standards in order to keep government supply chains secure.
“We are seeing unprecedented scale and rate of compromise, as tactics used by malicious actors become more sophisticated,” he said.
“Cyber security is more important than ever and Kasada is making a very big contribution to that.”
Mr Turnbull’s comments come as it emerged that an updated national cyber security policy will require companies to invest to get their cyber defences up to a prescribed standard, and that the government will increase federal funding for cyber security.
On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds warned of a worrying increase in cyber attacks against Australian interests by a “sophisticated state-based actor” – thought to be China.
Mr Turnbull said the recent attacks justified his decision to prevent Chinese company Huawei from supplying equipment to build a 5G network in Australia.
From a national security point of view, if the only attack surfaces protected belong to the government, you are not doing the job.
— Malcolm Turnbull
“In the not quite two years since my government made the decision to keep high-risk vendors out of 5G in Australia, [that] has been proved to be the right call,” he said.
Kasada has developed software to detect attacks by automated bots. Mr Turnbull said its technology could help defend websites from the escalating attacks that have hit Australia recently.
“Being able to detect and repel automated-access bots is of critical importance, and you can see how valuable it would be in the context of this recent attack Morrison is talking about,” he said.
“Attacks of this kind can only be operationalised in an automated way, so if you can repel automated access, it provides protection you would not otherwise have.”
Cybercrime costs Australian businesses and individuals $29 billion a year, Kasada’s research has found. But it says 90 per cent of Australia’s top 250 websites failed to prevent an automation tool from submitting credentials.
The most prevalent and damaging cyber attacks are those that exploit stolen user credentials to access accounts.
Mr Turnbull’s investment in Kasada, which is expanding into the United States, has been made alongside leading US cyber investor Ten Eleven Ventures, which has an investment alliance with private equity giant KKR, where Mr Turnbull is a senior adviser.
Another investor in Kasada is In-Q-Tel, which was created as a venture capital fund for the US Central Intelligence Agency and is working with the Office of National Intelligence to support a partnership between the intelligence agencies of the US, UK and Australia.
Mr Turnbull has also invested alongside IQT in Myriota, a satellite communications company; and Advanced Navigation, which is developing robotics and other navigation technologies.
It was also revealed on Monday he has backed social media troll-monitoring software company Sentropy.
Mr Turnbull said government and business must work together to ensure the highest standards of protection.
“As soon as you come up with a defence, your adversaries come up with another line of attack, so you have to deploy best and brightest to defend your interests,” he said.
“It is important to remember, from a national security point of view, if the only attack surfaces protected belong to the government, you are not doing the job.
“While government has very sensitive information, and highly classified information, there are so many other parties dealing with government that, in a sense, there is a connectedness … but [the internet] has also created a level of vulnerability.”
Kasada founder Sam Crowther said Mr Morrison’s warning last week should be a wake-up call for business and legislating for a mandated level of preparedness was inevitable, albeit challenging.
“Many Australian organisations are well prepared, and they would go well beyond any minimum standards,” he said.
“The vast majority, however, are under-prepared and they need to address their security positions quickly.”
Centre of excellence
The updated cyber security strategy is expected to lift spending. Mr Turnbull launched Australia’s first national cyber security strategy in 2016 when he was prime minister, investing more than $230 million across 33 initiatives.
Mr Crowther said AustCyber, an industry-led and government-backed organisation set up in 2017, had proven collaboration works and its funding should be increased.
“AustCyber nurtures Australian security talent, fosters skills development and encourages the private, public and tertiary sectors to join forces,” he said.
“These priorities need further backing. AustCyber, like Kasada, believes Australia can be a global centre of excellence in cyber security.”
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Mr Turnbull said Mr Crowther, who worked in the Australian Signals Directorate as a high school student, and Kasada “really embody everything I was trying to achieve with the National Innovation and Science Agenda, and more particularly, the cyber security strategy”.
He said IQT’s interest in the Australian market was an endorsement of the potential of many local start-ups.
“The culture of innovation and desire for investment in Australian technology is really at its highest level it has ever been,” Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Crowther said as Kasada looks to expand abroad, leaders in many governments and global businesses know Mr Turnbull initiated Australia’s cyber security strategy.
“Having a former prime minister backing Kasada is a major endorsement of who we are and what we do.”
James Eyers writes on banking, fintech and technology. Based in our Sydney newsroom, James is a former Legal Affairs and Capital editor for the Financial Review Connect with James on Twitter. Email James at email@example.com
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