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Fostering Australia-Pacific cyber security cooperation

By Haris Aziz

For decades, Australia and the Pacific Islands have, for the most part, worked together to ensure security and stability in the region. As cyber-related threats grow, so should that proven relationship.

The Australian example has shown that as economies digitalise, grow, and become more interconnected through online networks, so do the number of cyber attacks. It’s estimated such attacks could cost the economy about $29 billion per year. In addition to economic damage, cyber attacks also directly endanger citizens’ data and erode their trust in digital infrastructure.

Similarly, the Pacific region will also face bigger and more advanced cyber threats as its digital economy grows. This will hinder countries’ ability to capitalise on the benefits delivered by a more connected and more global digital economy. As cyber threats become more advanced and common, they could greatly undermine the security and future development of the Pacific region.

The Pacific Islands have fostered productive relationships with New Zealand and Australia to help maintain security and stability in the region. In the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, the members of the Pacific Island Forum placed increasing emphasis on ‘cybersecurity, to maximise protections and opportunities for Pacific Infrastructure and people in the digital age.’ In 2021, Australia reaffirmed their commitment to the Boe Declaration, and launched the Cyber Cooperation Program with the aim of partnering with Pacific Island countries to enhance cyber resilience. This included financial support to strengthen capabilities to ‘fight cybercrime, improve online security and counter disinformation and misinformation.’ Australia should continue to build partnerships with Pacific nations to ensure regional cyber resilience.

Australia, like many nations, is trying to build up its cybersecurity capabilities and a skilled workforce in response to increasing cyber threats. Domestically, government funding has prompted Australian tertiary institutions to begin growing their cyber security course offerings, in turn growing the national cyber security workforce. Looking to the Pacific, the Australian National University runs a cyber boot camp providing practical advice and skills training to government officials from ASEAN and Pacific nations with the aim of building cyber capability and resilience.

Although this is a step in the right direction, Australia’s approach to providing cyber security support and education to the Pacific should be multi-faceted. The first aspect of this is increasing public awareness of cyber threats and preventing citizens falling victim to them. Australia’s current cyber security campaign does exactly this; informing the public on prevention strategies. A similar public awareness campaign could be implemented for the Pacific region. The Pacific region could use some of the resources from the Australian campaign on vital cyber hygiene measures, such as the use of strong passwords, the importance of anti-virus software and how to recognise social engineering attacks.

The second aspect is increasing Australia’s cyber security skill-sharing with Pacific nations, primarily with youth. Pacific nations’ youth of today – and leaders of tomorrow – will play a critical role as these nations grow and integrate further with the digital economy. By improving access to Australia’s growing list of cyber security tertiary courses, they will be better prepared for the cyber challenges the region will face in the future. This could be in the form of government scholarships, partnerships between Australian and Pacific institutions or even just better marketing of these courses in the Pacific region. It will also further deepen the relationship between Australian and Pacific Island students entering the sector.

The final aspect is a collective regional cyber security strategy to guide the next generation of cyber security experts. Australia’s own cyber security strategy recognises the importance of its regional neighbours' roles in combating cyber threats. This regional approach would ensure both Australian and Pacific cyber security experts are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. A regional strategy has the advantage that it allows key stakeholders to tailor the strategy specifically for the strategic goals for Pacific nations. Overall, a regional cybersecurity strategy standardises the processes and objectives of regional security, furthermore, this increases the compatibility between nation’s cybersecurity mechanisms and institutions.

As cyber threats increase in frequency around the world, regional neighbours must be willing to further their collaboration to strengthen regional cyber security. Although there have been some joint efforts between Australia and the Pacific Islands in the cyber security space, more must be done. Australia can assist in raising public resilience against cyber threats, contribute to educating the next generation of Pacific Island cyber security experts, and work alongside regional neighbours to draft the regional cyber security strategy needed to face the

Pacific region’s future cyber security challenges and success.

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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