Cyber threats against ‘Medieval’ controls: Australia ‘woefully’ unprepared – ANZ CEO

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ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott made public remarks yesterday that have certainly focused attention on corporate Australia’s cyber-readiness.

The banking executive said that the majority of Australian businesses are hopelessly unprepared for cyberattacks — a mounting threat as the digitisation of society gains pace and criminals exploit vulnerabilities during COVID-19.

Two days ago, the Australian Cyber Security Centre released its annual report for the 2020-21 financial year: a highly anticipated and relevant collection of data on cybercrime.

Australian businesses lost about $850 million from cyber-related scams and attacks last year and warned small-to-medium sized businesses were exposed to mounting costs if they failed to build adequate protection.

Mr Elliott’s comments ring an alarm bell for executives across corporate Australia. They are the most blunt, to-the-point remarks I have read in some time, and are a refreshingly frank assessment of the state of affairs when it comes to cybersecurity preparedness.

“Australian businesses are nowhere near well enough prepared for this. I would describe the position as woeful actually,” he said, speaking at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle event on Tuesday.

Importantly, he noted the strong connection between the trends and the ongoing pandemic, saying scams and attacks had increased by about 75% last year as Australians work and interact digitally during lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Therefore we’re more and more susceptible than we’ve been before. Sadly, criminals have taken an opportunity there. People are under stress and more likely to click on things they shouldn’t,” Mr Elliott said.

“The good news is the general level of preparedness around cyber at the big end of town – banks, big infrastructure – is pretty good. The risk is really in the small, mid-sized corporate area. I don’t think many companies pay enough attention to this.”

Mr Elliott noted that protecting affected businesses from cyber attacks was “not rocket science” and the most important defence mechanism was staff training. “Our number one protection, our number one firewall is people. It’s people using common sense,” he said. “Does that transaction look real? Does that request for data seem legitimate?”

The comments come as the Australian Banking Association (ABA) this week launched a month-long campaign to raise awareness about cyber scams after releasing a survey that found 69% of Australians deal with weekly scam attempts and one-in-three know someone who has lost money to a scam.

Australian banks will spend about $19 billion this year on IT systems to prevent scams, according to the ABA.

Meanwhile, Westpac’s chief executive Peter King said upgrading technology was a key part of the bank’s strategy to strengthen financial crime controls after being fined a record $1.3 billion last year for allowing paedophiles to use its banking services. 

During an analyst briefing, Jefferies senior banking analyst Brian Johnson asked about reports in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald where banking insiders complained of “medieval” financial crime technology that required Westpac staff to juggle between multiple platforms.

APRA dumps investigation into Westpac anti-money laundering breaches
A senior banking analyst asked Westpac’s CEO about banking insiders complaining of “medieval” financial crime technology that required Westpac staff to juggle between multiple platforms.

Little surprise, then, when ANZ CEO’s has used the words he did to describe the oft-parlous state of affairs inside even some of our leading companies.

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji is the CEO of Gridware, a leading cybersecurity consultancy based in Sydney, Australia. An emerging thought leader in cybersecurity, Ahmed is an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and regularly contributes to cybersecurity conversations in Australia. As well as his extensive background as a security advisor to large Australian enterprises, he is a regular keynote speaker and guest lecturer on offensive cybersecurity topics and blockchain.

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