Fed up in your job? Foreign spies target resentful workers in essential industries
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Disgruntled employees in Australia’s essential industries are being targeted by foreign governments looking to exploit their insider knowledge, in one of the biggest threats to national security.
The first annual review of major dangers to Australia’s critical infrastructure has identified that workplace insiders are among the most attractive targets for malicious foreign intelligence services because they can harm national security, undermine capabilities and be pre-positioned for hiring in specific roles.
Disgruntled workers who might want to inflict reputation damage on their industry or organisation have been targeted through advertisements on the dark web.Credit: Artists
Foreign actors have been advertising on the dark web to target resentful workers in Australia who might want to inflict reputation damage on their industry or organisation, the review said, while also using LinkedIn to recruit business travellers.
Staff shortages across essential sectors – such as energy, food, health, transport and communications – are expected to exacerbate the problem over the next three years as overstretched workers become increasingly unhappy. Workforce pressures will also tempt organisations to employ people above their skill level, creating further operational risks.
An over-reliance on single-source supply chains in almost every Australian industry has also made critical service delivery more vulnerable, while foreign interference, espionage and terrorism remain key national security threats, according to the annual review.
The review follows Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s announcement last December that the government was calling in some of the world’s leading experts to devise a cybersecurity strategy to prevent a repeat of the Optus and Medibank attacks that led to the private data of millions of Australians being stolen and leaked online in 2022.
As well as cybersecurity, O’Neil told the National Press Club her mega-department would increase its focus on climate change, natural disasters, foreign interference and threats to Australian democracy.
A statement from the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Centre, which produced the review from within the Department of Home Affairs, noted risks to critical infrastructure increased during periods of heightened geopolitical tensions.
“Recent cyber, trusted insider, supply chain and physical attacks have highlighted the ongoing threat to critical infrastructure around the globe,” it said.
“Successful penetration of Australia’s corporate systems is unlikely to abate in the short term with increasing potential for bigger and more disruptive information breaches.”
In the US capital last week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealed Australia’s online spy agency would join Microsoft to build a cyber shield to protect networks from security threats, as part of a $5 billion investment by the tech giant in local projects.
But critical industries were also vulnerable to threats from within, the review said, as frequent staff turnover and worker shortages erode workplace loyalty, or make it more likely that staff access sensitive information without appropriate security clearances or background checks.
“‘Dark web’ job advertisements targeting ‘disgruntled employees’ are being used as a recruitment tool as more and more threat actors acknowledge the value of exploiting insider access,” the review said.
“Insiders can deliberately disclose sensitive or confidential information to third parties, manipulate systems and networks to harm an organisation, or be recruited by foreign intelligence services to undermine the current and future capabilities of Australia’s critical infrastructure service delivery.”
There have been several cases this year of foreign actors using LinkedIn to approach and recruit business travellers to provide information.
In 2021, British intelligence agency MI5 said at least 10,000 UK nationals had been approached by fake profiles linked to hostile states on the professional social network over the previous five years.
The review said money could be a strong motivator for some insiders, while disgruntled workers could also be persuaded to damage a sector’s operations or tarnish its reputation. Some might understand what they are doing and why, while others are manipulated without their knowledge.
Flexible working arrangements since the pandemic have increased the connectivity between work and personal devices, and made it harder to detect when a trusted employee shares information with a third party.
Online chat forums such as Discord and War Thunder have also become platforms through which people leak classified or sensitive information.
While the review does not name any countries, intelligence chiefs from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand appeared in public together for the first time two weeks ago in California’s Silicon Valley to warn that China’s espionage requires an unprecedented global response.
“The Chinese government are engaged in the most sustained, sophisticated and scaled theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history,” Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief Mike Burgess warned.
Supply chains were also identified in the review as a serious risk to national security, with almost every critical infrastructure sector in Australia relying on one source for some of their critical components and services.
“Supply chains that are concentrated in single countries, or regions within single countries, are highly vulnerable,” the review warned.
But Australia had few contingencies. While stockpiles could mask the impact of disruptions in the short term, they would not fill long-term gaps that came from the loss or disruption of a single-source supplier.
The review said the COVID pandemic had highlighted how quickly an outbreak could spread globally, threatening the stability and security of critical infrastructure networks.
More regular and severe natural disasters will also put pressure on Australian systems, with the El Nino weather pattern likely to stretch the country’s water availability.
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