Cyber security ‘impossible’ to improve before NSW council polls

NSW Electoral Commissioner John Schmidt has said the polling body’s cyber security won’t meet the state government’s own standards in time for the council ballots.

Mr Schmidt said he had over the past four years repeatedly called for greater funding to boost the commission’s capability to prevent cyber attacks, saying last week that if he were given it immediately there would be no time to comply before the December 4 elections.

The NSW Electoral Commissioner says cyber security won’t be up to standard in time for the council elections.Credit:

Mr Schmidt expressed frustration before a budget estimates hearing on Thursday that the commission had not received the $22 million it requested in its latest business case to Digital NSW, an agency within the Department of Customer Service.

“For at least two annual reports, it’s been a very clear statement that we’re not compliant with the government cyber security policy,” Mr Schmidt said, adding it was the fourth year since he’d been commissioner the oversight body had asked for additional resources.

Labor MLC Mark Buttigieg put to Mr Schmidt the commission faced an “existential threat” in a month’s time with the elections approaching.

While Mr Schmidt qualified there was not a government authority who could “hand on heart” say they were completely safe from cyber attacks, “if there was a state actor who, for whatever reason, decided to target any organisation in NSW, there would be a limitation to how much that could be withstood”.

Mr Buttigieg asked, if Premier Dominic Perrottet offered Mr Schmidt the $22 million the following day, whether the commission could comply with government standards before the polls, to which Mr Schmidt replied, “no, impossible”.

Electronic voting will be used for the first time in this year’s council elections, with the uptake expected to be popular due to the pandemic.

Digital NSW deputy secretary Greg Wells told another budget estimates hearing last month that he didn’t have a time frame for when the funding request would be finalised, also saying the government’s cyber security agency provided a range of support to the commission to monitor its vulnerabilities and boost its defences.

Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello told the same hearing the NSW government was second only to the federal government in terms of cyber-readiness, according to a recent report.

“Just in terms of money, we are putting $1.6 billion into Digital Restart phase one. Phase two was another half a billion. And $240 million of that in phase one was for cyber. Of phase two, I think it was about $75 million. So the suggestion that the government is not taking this seriously could not be further from the truth,” Mr Dominello said.

In a March parliamentary hearing, Mr Schmidt said the commission had ageing systems, some of which were more than 10-years-old, supporting the elections it oversaw.

“Those systems were never designed in a world where cyber took such prominence so you cannot do easy fixes,” he said.

“Your legitimacy, the legitimacy of the government and the legitimacy of the Parliament hinges on me being able to conduct independent and fair elections with integrity, and cyber is a major concern.”

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