Australia unveils joint cyber police taskforce to 'hunt down' hackers

Illustration shows broken Ethernet cable, binary code and words "cyber security"

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Saturday formalised a new cyber-policing model in a stepped-up effort to "hunt down" cyber criminal syndicates, following recent hacks impacting millions of Australians.

Australia's biggest health insurer, Medibank Private Ltd, last month was hit by a massive cyber attack, as Australia grapples with a rise in damaging hacks.

At least eight companies, including Singapore Telecommunications-owned telecoms company Optus, Australia's second largest telco, have reported breaches since September.

On Saturday, Minister for Home Affairs Clare O'Neil said the government had formalised a permanent partnership between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Signals Directorate - which intercepts electronic communications from foreign countries - to do "new tough policing" on cybercrime.

O'Neil said around 100 officers would be part of the new partnership between the two federal agencies, which would act as "a joint standing operation against cyber criminal syndicates".

The taskforce would "day in, day out, hunt down the scumbags who are responsible for these malicious crimes", she said.

The announcement comes after AFP on Friday said Russia-based hackers were behind the attack on Medibank, which compromised data from around 10 million current and former customers.

Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, speaking alongside O'Neil in Melbourne, refused to be drawn on whether the ransomware group REvil was responsible for recent cyber attacks on Australians.

"I won't be commenting on operational matters like that, but what we do know ... is that it is a very organised criminal gang and that it is located in Russia," Dreyfus said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has previously said the government was doing all it could to limit the impact of the Medibank hack and had set up a phone service for affected customers to seek help from both the government and Medibank.

(Reporting by Sam McKeith; Editing by Leslie Adler)