Queensland universities are battling daily cyber attacks, including from a notorious Iranian cyber warfare unit which targeted one of the state's top institutions.

QUT alone has been hit by 600 incidents in the past 12 months, including an attack from Iran's cyber warfare group known by the online alias Charming Kitten, which also targeted the 2020 US presidential election.

QUT has revealed it faced 600 information security incidents in the past 12 months. Picture: Dan Peled/NCA NewsWire
QUT has revealed it faced 600 information security incidents in the past 12 months. Picture: Dan Peled/NCA NewsWire

Spy agency ASIO has assessed universities at risk from cyber threats due to their policy, research and scientific developments - and even warned in its submission was aware of attempts to "steal sensitive Australian intellectual property".

Many of the state's universities are calling for the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) to be bolstered to help arm them against the hi-tech threats and a clear foreign interference and influence strategy from the Federal Government.

The tertiary education providers have laid bare the extent of the digital battleground, as well as their efforts to fight back against it, in submissions into a parliamentary inquiry into national security risks affecting the sector.

University of Queensland revealed it was targeted by email scams "almost daily", as well as 12 security incidents it said had "a minor impact", one that had a moderate impact and no major ones.

"Small incidents, such as scam email campaigns, are an almost-daily event and consume significant resources to manage," the UQ submission stated.

It said successful malware and ransomware attacks were now relatively uncommon due to protection software and mail filters.

Cyber attacks and digital security incursions are a daily occurrence for many universities. Picture: iStock
Cyber attacks and digital security incursions are a daily occurrence for many universities. Picture: iStock

In its submission, QUT revealed it had detected 600 information security incidents in the past 12 months, mostly from cyber criminals seeking to compromise credentials for financial gain.

It also revealed in March it was targeted by Charming Kitten, which was attempting to redirect users to false login pages with phishing emails - but the university's security systems successfully blocked the attempt.

"We believe that the prevalence of foreign interference in the higher education and research sector is relatively low at present, although the potential risk to Australia's national security is high," the submission stated.

Central Queensland University said it was "intimately familiar" with foreign agents attempting to access universities for data and information.

QUT, UQ and Griffith University urged the government to bolster UFIT to include "deeper expertise around specific threats" to help them identify and fix any potential national security gaps.

A Federal Education Department spokeswoman said UFIT had created foreign interference guidelines for universities which were released in November 2019, setting out best practice on how to manage risk stemming from the threat.

"In July 2020, the Government provided $1.6 million to enhance cyber security across Australia's university sector, in collaboration with the UFIT," she said.

Originally published as Foreign hackers' all-out war on Qld universities


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