The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Australia's government and banks have become regular targets of cyber hackers, highlighting the country's vulnerability to the growing number of hostile attacks on computer systems worldwide.
The warning from Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of Brussels-based NATO, at a speech in Canberra Wednesday is the clearest indication any senior public official from the organization has given that hackers are trying to breach computer security at the highest levels of Australia's government and within the nation's key financial institutions.
Australian politicians have acknowledged the escalating threat from so-called cyber-weaponry, including from governments, but have stopped short of confirming attacks on any specific institutions.
"Your government departments and ministerial offices are regularly subjected to (cyber) attacks, and in recent months your financial institutions have been targeted as well," Mr. Rasmussen said in the speech, adding it was often very difficult to identify the source and that NATO itself was routinely attacked.
Australia's defense minister Stephen Smith last week acknowledged that he and officials from his department took precautions to safeguard electronic communications ahead of a visit to China where he met senior military officials, but denied those measures were anything out of the ordinary.
Earlier this year, Australia blocked a Huawei Technologies Co. unit from tendering for contracts linked to the country's new nationwide broadband Internet network, citing national-interest concerns amid speculation the Chinese company may pose a security risk.
In a sign of growing sensitivity to the cyber threat, Canberra recently established a Computer Emergency Response Team to help critical-infrastructure providers, and companies such as banks which operate systems vital to Australia's national interest, protect sensitive data.
Representatives of the four biggest banks in Australia weren't immediately able to comment on the cyber threat, but defense analysts said large organizations remained vulnerable despite action taken by governments and companies, and not only in Australia.
A U.S. intelligence report last November said hackers from China, including some associated with the government, were the world's most "active and persistent" perpetrators of industrial spying. The report cited a string of attacks originating in China, including one targeting Google Inc., and the theft of data from some global energy companies.
A particularly potent and sophisticated cyber weapon dubbed Flame came to light last month in Europe and the Middle East, where it caused widespread disruption to government and private institutions, particularly in Iran. Australia's Computer Emergency Response Team said earlier this month that there were no reports of Flame infecting computers Australia.
"If you're a major financial institution, the truth is that if a government organization from a foreign country or major organized criminal group wants to get access, it's going to be very hard to prevent some access at least," said Ross Babbage, managing director of defense think-tank Strategy International.
Mr. Rasmussen's visit to Australia comes as NATO--traditionally a transatlantic alliance between Europe and the U.S.--seeks to extend its reach in Asia-Pacific, alongside U.S. efforts to expand its influence in the region.
During his visit, Australia and NATO will sign an accord on areas of common concern--including counter-terrorism and maritime security, in addition to cyber threats--a spokesman for Australia's defense minister said. Earlier this month, NATO signed an accord with neighboring New Zealand touching on similar issues.
In his speech, Mr. Rasmussen additionally flagged the growing risk to Australia, among the world's biggest exporters of seaborne commodities, from ocean piracy.
Australia recently allowed the U.S. to base 2,500 marines near the north-western city of Darwin amid concern over China's growing military power.