The Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 was passed by the Senate on Monday night, with both the major parties backing it.
The Greens dissented, terming the bill a “greedy little power grab” which did not have the backing of key stakeholders.
After the bill was examined by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, it said, on 30 September, that the legislation should be split up into two, in order to pass what it characterised as "urgent reforms".
The PJCIS said it had made 14 recommendations about the bill, including that it be split into two parts:
"Bill One for rapid passage – to expand the critical infrastructure sectors covered by the Act, introduce government assistance measures to be used as a last resort in crisis scenarios as well as mandatory reporting obligations; and
"Bill Two for further consultation – including declarations of systems of national significance, enhanced cyber-security obligations and positive security obligations which are to be defined in delegated legislation."
Last month, lobby groups the Information Technology Industry Council, the Australian Information Industry Association and the Cybersecurity Coalition wrote to Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, saying that while their members shared the government's commitment to protecting critical infrastructure against cyber threats, the bill remained "highly problematic and largely unchanged despite extensive feedback from our organisations".
"We are disappointed by the recent report... which recommended that the elements of the bill which caused the most concern for industry stakeholders — namely the government assistance powers granted under Part 3A and incident reporting obligations — be fast-tracked and pushed through as a separate bill, without further public consultation," the three organisations said.
The law greatly increases the sectors that are covered by the law, to include communications, financial services, data storage and processing, defence industry, higher education and space technology.
Companies in these sectors would have to compulsorily report to the government if they suffered cyber attacks. They would also have to allow government security experts to step in and do what whatever was deemed necessary to stop an attack progressing.
This power is similar to what the FBI exercised in April this year, when it accessed servers to clean up the mess left by attacks on on-premise Microsoft Exchange Server installations.
This was done after obtaining court orders to access hundreds of vulnerable machines in the US and remove Web shells.
But the Australian bill does not require any court order for intelligence agencies to act in this manner.
Scott McKinnel, ANZ country manager for security shop Tenable, said the bill that had passed was an important step forward in protecting the Australian way of life.
"The extension of its definition, from four sectors to a further 11, is key because as we've seen recently, attacks on any of these environments can have dire consequences," he said.
"Many facilities are increasingly interconnecting their operational technology and IT networks to drive innovation. However, they are in desperate need of physical updates because many of these industrial control systems were not built with security in mind. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks which can quite literally shut down operations and trickle into the supply chain.
"While we still have concerns surrounding mandated government assistance powers granted in the Bill, one possible way around this would be for industry to install their own monitoring software that meets government standards instead and share the resulting data with the appropriate government entities.
"Greater emphasis on international collaboration, assessment of risk and collaborative incident response capabilities to tackle the ever-evolving threats can go a long way in bolstering the ability of industry and governments to prevent the most advanced attacks. It's equally critical that security requirements are grounded in consensus-based international standards to ensure alignment with global best practices."
"If recent critical infrastructure attacks have taught us anything, it's that incidents don't only affect the business, the implications are felt society-wide. When it comes down to it, neither government nor industry can tackle this challenge alone, it takes collaboration and co-operation from both sides."