16 October 2022

Optus attack puts renewed focus on APS cyber security

| Chris Johnson
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Improving cyber security is essential for government departments.

Department of Finance Secretary Jenny Wilkinson says cyber security needs to be a top priority for public service agencies, insisting it’s a genuine and dangerous threat.

“Cyber security is essential. It’s not optional,” she told the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s national conference in Canberra.

The Secretary said the recent cyber attack on Optus, in which millions of Australians had personal data stolen, was a huge wake-up call for the public service.

“It’s a reminder that we need to not just have the governance in place, but also actually be using different methods to robustly test our systems,” she said.

“We have to be clear: you can never remove all the risks.”

READ ALSO Ambitious and enduring reform agenda for APS

Ms Wilkinson said APS agencies had to always focus on building capabilities within the sector, but that didn’t necessarily mean the job had to be outsourced.

“Like lots of things that are needed to build capability, you can do them in-house,” she said.

“This is a new capability, but one that’s front and centre for us.”

She said the Australian Bureau of Statistics had set a good example for other agencies to follow with a model that had proven to work.

Following the census crash in 2016, the ABS deployed a system of ‘ethical hacking’ to prepare for the 2021 census.

Hackers were used to test the strength of the census’s cyber security to foresee and prevent any possible attack.

Ms Wilkinson suggested the model should be part of a mix of varying approaches across agencies for minimising the risk of cyber attacks.

The department boss, who was part of a conference panel conversation with Leigh Sales, also noted how the workplace had shifted since the arrival of COVID-19.

READ ALSO Government working on model to bring APS consulting in-house

Working from home had proven to be successful in many respects.

“We really did shift dramatically during COVID,” she said.

“There is so much more flexibility now for people to be doing that late-night budget work at home rather than at the office.”

About half of her staff are now back working in the office, but with that newfound flexibility, a hybrid system seems to be working well.

She said new staff and graduates had a different experience not being able to embrace the department while working from home.

She described the “non-transactional interactions you have with people” as the missing benefits of remote working.

Team building and person-to-person engagement were important.

“We want to strike a balance,” she said.

The IPAA conference ran over three days in Canberra, bringing together public servants of varying levels and across agencies.

Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher, Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott and a host of departmental secretaries and deputies addressed the event.

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“There is so much more flexibility now for people to be doing that late-night budget work at home rather than at the office.” Err, no. Where do we tell Wilkinson that if she wants work done, it should be done during business hours by properly resourced staff?

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