What we risk as humans if we allow gene-edited babies: a philosopher’s view

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Janna Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, La Trobe University

A second woman is said to be pregnant with a gene-edited baby in China, according to reports this year. It follows revelations last November that gene-edited twins had been born, which caused much debate.

One of the fears expressed by scientists is that gene editing may result in unwanted side effects.

But beyond the health and medical concerns, what are the philosophical issues at stake here when it comes to gene-editing babies?

Read more: ‘Designer’ babies won’t be common anytime soon – despite recent CRISPR twins

Undesirable mutations introduced by gene editing to sperm, eggs or early-stage embryos could be reproduced in future generations. But future generations are unable to give their consent to the risks being taken, says Francis S Collins, the former leader of the Human Genome Project and now director of the US National Institutes of Health.

The Chinese scientist responsible for the gene-edited babies aimed to produce offspring of HIV-infected fathers who will be naturally resistant to the virus.

Read more: ‘Designer’ babies won’t be common anytime soon – despite recent CRISPR twins

Eliminating disease and other harmful conditions may be a laudable aim, and most people would welcome a world in which no one has to suffer from, for example, haemophilia, muscular dystrophy or other genetically carried disorders and disabilities.

Should we, shouldn’t we

Let us assume that the health risks of gene editing are exaggerated or can be eliminated. While designer babies may be some way off, we need to start thinking now about how far should we go in editing away undesired characteristics or adding those that are desirable.

Any prospective project to enhance the qualities of the population recalls wrongs committed by government-sponsored eugenics programs in the United States and Canada, as well as Germany in the early 20th century.

In 1939, the Australian government also passed legislation to institutionalise or sterilise those deemed deficient, but it was never put into practice.

Some philosophers argue there is nothing wrong with allowing parents to select characteristics that they want their children to have. In his 2010 book Enhancing Evolution, the UK bio-ethicist John Harris says this is ethically no more problematic than giving a child a good education.

Australian philosopher Julian Savulescu argues that parents ought to use whatever technology is available to select the children whose characteristics will enable them to live the best lives.

These philosophers fail to take seriously the social problems that genetic enhancement is likely to cause.

Only the wealthy

Use of the technology is going to be expensive – especially when it is first introduced – and only wealthy parents will be able to afford to enhance their children.

The result may not be as bad as imagined in the 1997 science fiction film Gattaca, which portrays a society divided between the genetically privileged and those whose lack of enhancement consigns them to menial jobs.

But genetic enhancement is likely to make societies more unequal, and equality of opportunity will become more and more meaningless.

Let us imagine that all parents in a future society will be able to choose the characteristics of their children. Some philosophers worry that babies designed to meet the demands of parents will make them into consumer products.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, in his 2014 book The Future of Human Nature, that genetic engineering will restrict the ability of individuals to make free choices.

Even if this is not so, it may drastically affect parent/child relationships by undermining a basic ethical principle: that parents should accept, love and care for whatever children they have.

What parents want

Genetic engineering is likely to heighten parental expectations. If parents don’t get the child of their choice – if the qualities they selected do not materialise or if the child fails to make use of them – their disappointment could lead to denigration or rejection.

Ethical doubts about genetic engineering motivate a view that many philosophers favour: that genetic therapy to eliminate disease and disability is ethically acceptable, given that the risks can be overcome.

But genetic enhancement is ethically problematic. The line between enhancement and therapy is difficult to draw.

Studies show people who are physically attractive are likely to earn more than those considered to have below-average looks. Does this mean “ugliness” is a disability that ought to be corrected by genetic engineering?

Or, similarly, is having a below-average IQ a disability, something that should be subject to change through gene-editing?

Gene editing and prejudice

Should parents be able to engineer the skin colour of their children to try to circumvent the social bias they might otherwise experience? Being black creates serious disadvantage in some societies.

But it is a mistake to treat social problems as if they were the fault of properties possessed by some individuals.

If people are intolerant, then catering to their prejudices will not make them more tolerant. They will find other reasons or objects for their intolerance.

Read more: Cloning monkeys for research puts humans on a slippery ethical slope

If less attractive people are disadvantaged or people of low intelligence are belittled, we ought to question our standards and behaviour. If black people face social discrimination, we should fight against racism rather than seek to accommodate it.

Behind this response lies the liberal conviction that we ought to welcome human differences and respect individuals in all their variety and ways of being.

To eliminate disease and severe disabilities is a worthy objective. No person should suffer them. But to eliminate human variety is not only risky; it eliminates perspectives that enrich us.

ref. What we risk as humans if we allow gene-edited babies: a philosopher’s view – http://theconversation.com/what-we-risk-as-humans-if-we-allow-gene-edited-babies-a-philosophers-view-110498

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

How big ideas for regional Australia were given short shrift

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Amanda Walsh, Associate Director, Government Relations, Australian Catholic University

Eight months is a long time in politics. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s happened in the federal parliament in the past week.) So waiting eight months for a response to a parliamentary report raises certain expectations. When the federal government delivered its response last week to an ambitious parliamentary blueprint for regional Australia, the almost eight-month wait had led many of us to expect something detailed and sophisticated. Many of us are now disappointed.

In formally responding to Regions at the Ready, produced by the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, the government has declined the invitation to engage in clever policymaking. Instead, it has stuck to the well-worn path of decentralising public sector jobs.

Read more: Report recommends big ideas for regional Australia – beyond decentralisation

Out of 13 recommendations in Regions at the Ready, the government has accepted only five without reservation. Four of these relate to decentralisation (the fifth is on access to higher education in regional Australia). For the remaining recommendations and issues, the government has employed a strategy familiar to all political observers: kicking the can down the road. The government will form an “expert panel” to undertake “a targeted assessment of the key issues raised in the report”.

Some may suggest eight months was enough time to assess those key issues.

To understand the level of underachievement here, it’s necessary to recall the level of policy ambition in Regions at the Ready. When the report was released in June 2018, at the conclusion of a year-long inquiry and on the back of almost 200 submissions, it raised hopes of a better way of designing and delivering regional policy. I described it at the time as “a far-reaching and highly practical work program for regional development”, and I haven’t changed my view.

Bringing together parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle, plus a prominent crossbench member in Cathy McGowan, the select committee grappled with the biggest issues facing regional communities: globalisation, population ageing, urbanisation and technological change.

The committee was also asked to consider decentralisation of public service jobs. It delivered on that task, but it built decentralisation into a much bigger, smarter approach to “place-based” policymaking. Sure, the committee said, moving public servants from the city to the country might be a good idea (depending on the circumstances), but our vision for regional Australia has to be bigger than this.

But the sticking point – and it’s a big one – is politics. The next federal election is looming. While we may not go to the polls until May, Canberra has already tipped over into full campaign mode. Not only is the government flagging in the polls nationally, but a crop of independent candidates is mounting a challenge to sitting Coalition members in regional and rural seats.

In these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that the government has retreated to what must seem safe ground in regional policy: buy them off with “roads and rail” and fiddle with public service jobs.

There may be more to come. But the government’s new expert panel is required to deliver its assessment of the big picture issues by March 31 2019 – and such a truncated process screams “electioneering”. It seems doubtful the bipartisan spirit of the committee’s report will survive this process.

Read more: Australia’s dangerous fantasy: diverting population growth to the regions

We’ve seen all of this before, in different guises. Politics tends to confound good policymaking for regional development. While the tension between politics and policy is evident across every portfolio of government, regional development is more prone than many to charges of partisanship and pork-barrelling.

The intimate relationship between regional development and the National Party is also in play. That relationship is increasingly fraught, as anyone who has read journalist Gabrielle Chan’s excellent Rusted Off will know. The key question may be: will regional Australians be willing to accept yet another tranche of low-tech, low-ambition policy for their communities?

Regions at the Ready was a genuine, deliberate attempt to sidestep the politicisation of regional policy. As I, and many others, argued in submissions to the inquiry, regional communities in Australia deserve sophisticated policy.

Shifting public service jobs to regional Australia is a policy that Coalition governments keep taking up, despite the lack of evidence that it is effective (and often in the absence of clear goals).

It’s regrettable, but perhaps inevitable, that the good policy work contained in Regions at the Ready is still sitting on the shelf. Whether it gathers dust for eternity will depend partly on how much ambition the National Party can muster between now and the election, and partly on what happens in that election.

ref. How big ideas for regional Australia were given short shrift – http://theconversation.com/how-big-ideas-for-regional-australia-were-given-short-shrift-111817

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

How domestic violence affects women’s mental health

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Rhian Parker, Academic Convenor, MAEVe ( Melbourne Alliance to End Violence against women and their children, University of Melbourne

Every week in Australia, a woman is murdered by someone she knows. And it’s usually an intimate male partner or ex-partner.

One in three women has suffered physical violence since the age of 15. In most cases (92% of the time) it’s by a man she knows.

Added to this, one-quarter of Australian women have suffered emotional abuse from a current or former partner. This occurs when a partner seeks to gain psychological and emotional control of the woman by demeaning her, controlling her actions, being verbally abusive and intimidating her.

Physical and emotional abuse is not only distressing, it’s psychologically damaging and increases women’s risk of developing a mental illness.

Read more: Revealed: the hidden problem of economic abuse in Australia

How violence increases the risk

Women who have experienced domestic violence or abuse are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing a range of mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide.

In situations of domestic violence, an abuser’s outburst is commonly followed by remorse and apology. But this “honeymoon” period usually ends in violence and abuse. This cycle means women are constantly anticipating the next outburst. Women in these situations feel they have little control, particularly when the abuse is happening in their own home.

Read more: Why some migrants in abusive relationships don’t receive help, and are deported

It’s no wonder living under such physical and emotional pressure impacts on mental and physical well-being.

One review of studies found the odds of experiencing PTSD was about seven times higher for women who had been victims of domestic violence than those who had not.

The likelihood of developing depression was 2.7 times greater, anxiety four times greater, and drug and alcohol misuse six times greater.

The likelihood of having suicidal thoughts was 3.5 times greater for women who had experienced domestic violence than those who hadn’t.

Survivors of domestic abuse are often reluctant to talk about their experiences. From shutterstock.com

An Australian study of 1,257 female patients visiting GPs found women who were depressed were 5.8 times more likely to have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse than women who were not depressed.

Not only is domestic violence and abuse a risk factor for psychological disorders, but women who have pre-existing mental health issues are more likely to be targets for domestic abusers.

Women who are receiving mental health services for depression, anxiety and PTSD, for instance, are at higher risk of experiencing domestic violence compared to women who do not have these disorders.

Read more: Pregnant women are at increased risk of domestic violence in all cultural groups

How do mental health services respond?

Although survivors of domestic violence are more likely to suffer mental illness, they are not routinely asked about domestic violence or abuse when getting mental health treatment. So they’re not provided with appropriate referrals or support.

One study found only 15% of mental health practitioners routinely enquired about domestic violence. Some 60% reported a lack of knowledge about domestic violence, while 27% believed they did not have adequate referral resources.

One-quarter (27%) of mental health practitioners provided women experiencing domestic violence with information about support services and 23% made a referral to counselling.

In the absence of direct questioning, survivors of domestic violence are reluctant to disclose abuse to health service providers. If mental health providers are managing the symptoms of the mental illness but ignoring the cause of the trauma, treatment is less likely to be successful.

Practitioners need to routinely ask women about present or past incidents of domestic violence if they are diagnosed as depressed or anxious, or if they show any other signs of mental distress.

Practitioners should be able to provide referrals to specialist services and need to be adequately trained to respond to those who disclose domestic violence. This means not focusing solely on medical treatment, but also on referrals and support.

Read more: Man who burnt his wife alive gets at least 27 years’ jail, but not life – as victim was no stranger

ref. How domestic violence affects women’s mental health – http://theconversation.com/how-domestic-violence-affects-womens-mental-health-104926

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

How Australia made poisoning animals normal

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, University of New England

One of the many difficulties faced by the pioneers of Australia’s sheep industry was finding a reliable shepherd. Among the convict labour available, for every two experienced farm labourers there were five convicted sheep, horse, cattle or poultry thieves.

The conditions were demanding. Convicts returning from pasture with fewer sheep than they left with faced a penalty of up to 100 lashes – close to a death sentence. Going bush was the only option for those unwilling to submit to the punishment back “inside”, as the settlements were called. Sheep were lost through negligence and misadventure, others to hungry dingoes.

Read more: Dingo dinners: what’s on the menu for Australia’s top predator?

Eradicating dingoes therefore had a double benefit for the graziers: they would reduce stock losses, and eliminate the need for (unreliable) convict labour.

Reverend Samuel Marsden announced the first plan for the destruction of the native dog in Sydney Town, 1811. On offer was a generous bounty of one gallon of spirits for each complete skin of a fully grown native dog.

(Incidentally, Marsden went on to introduce sheep to New Zealand, followed by the mysterious disappearance of the Maori kuri dog in following decades.)

Three years later, the first instance of using poison to eradicate the dingo was recorded in the Sydney Gazette. A “gentleman farmer” with extensive stock in the Nepean District initiated the operation. By applying arsenic to the body of a dead ox on his property, he managed to eradicate all the wild dogs from his landholding. The technique gathered a quiet following, though there were concerns that in the wrong hands this venture could inadvertently backfire on the penal colony.

Revolutionising toxicology

In 1818 French scientist Pierre Joseph Pelletier successfully extracted beautiful but sinister crystals from the plant nux vomica. This discovery revolutionised toxicology: it enabled mass production of a highly toxic, stable and cheap poison known as strychnine.

Strychnos Nux vomica, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen 1887 (Plate 107).

The crystals were soon to be exported en masse around the world. Strychinine became an essential item in the Australian farmer’s toolkit, and by 1852 its use on landholdings was mandatory to control unwanted wildlife. In 1871 author Anthony Trollope wrote in his observations of Australian life:

On many large runs, carts are continually being taken round with (strychnine) baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head-man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief.

Over the course of the 19th century, the Australian economy became irreversibly dependent on this industrial agrochemical farming system.

The pace of Australia’s agricultural revolution was rapid; between 1822, when fine wool became NSW’s major export product, and 1850, the national flock numbers increased from 120,000 to 16 million. By 1892 the Australian sheep flock numbered 106 million.

Fluctuations in the size of the Australian sheep flock 1800-2017. Australian Bureau of Statistics

A central Australian dingo extermination campaign was launched in 1897, to eradicate dingo and rabbit populations from South Australia’s arid zone. Described as the “Party of Poisoners”, the team travelled from Gawler Range to Wilpena Pound, covering an area 1,000km long by 480km wide. It took five months.

Read more: Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes

The poisoners dispensed phosphorised pollard and strychnine sticks and laid poisoned grain in lightly covered furrows. Meat baits were placed around the bases of the red and white mallee bush. Billabongs were poisoned. All species that might have competed for the scarce resources were effectively eliminated – carnivore and herbivore. Farming ultimately failed in the region. The natural biodiversity never recovered.

The Hudson Bros. Poison Cart 1883: initially designed to dispense dingo baits, by 1920 the. devices were being used in the thousands, to eradicate herbivores. Powerhouse Museum

The legacy of Australia’s chemical-dependent farming over the past 200 years remains largely unacknowledged in conversations about the current biodiversity crisis. Australia has around 500 threatened animal species, and our rate of mammalian extinctions is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The main drivers of the crisis are attributed to introduced species, changed fire regimes, and land clearing.

In the history of agricultural expansion, it was the dingo that was the initial target of eradication campaigns. Land clearing worked in concert with the broad scale application of vertebrate pesticides. The expansion in the application, range, methods of delivery and quantity of poison and poisoned baits applied was rapid, using increasingly sophisticated machinery.

The effects reverberated throughout Australia’s ecosystems: the removal of the dingo, the top order predator, lead to the explosion of herbivore populations, more poisons, the establishment of introduced species and destabilising of the native ecosystem.

Influence of the dingo on ecosystem function. Restoration Ecology, Newsome et al. 2015

In the 1870s newspapers were reporting on the impact of herbivore populations including the introduced rabbit. The South Australian Advertiser, wrote in 1877:

We have destroyed the balance of nature in two ways simultaneously, by destroying the carnivore and introducing a new herbivorous animal of immense reproductive powers.

Read more: Was agriculture the greatest blunder in human history?

In the 21st century, more vertebrate poisons are dispensed by air in National Parks, than on private land – in efforts to protect biodiversity from invasive species.

My research examines how poison has been normalised in land management. The use of vertebrate pesticides has been supported by services and systems embedded within Australia’s social, political and legal framework for 200 years.

Applying more vertebrate pesticides to the environment to try and solve the problem, is arguably an extreme case of mistaking the poison for the cure.

ref. How Australia made poisoning animals normal – http://theconversation.com/how-australia-made-poisoning-animals-normal-107004

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

This time it’s Labor and the Greens standing in the way of cheaper super

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Brendan Coates, Fellow, Grattan Institute

Parliament is failing workers with superannuation. And this time it’s Labor and the Greens who are doing it.

The Coalition’s Protecting Your Super Package Bill was designed to cut the unnecessary costs in super, significantly boosting balances when workers retire.

It was gutted in parliament last week as both Labor and the Greens sought amendments to the provisions for default insurance.

They might have been well-intentioned, but an analysis of the effect of their amendments shows that they weren’t serving the interests of most Australians.

Australians are paying for insurance they don’t need

In January the Productivity Commission reported that super funds were defaulting far too many Australians into life, disability, and income-protection insurance that they didn’t need. They were paying an unnecessary A$3 billion a year.

Most under-25s work in casual and part-time jobs. The overwhelming majority don’t have dependants, so life insurance is inappropriate for them. Often they don’t even know they are insured.

As they change jobs, they can find themselves defaulted into multiple policies, even though it is only legal to claim on income protection once, and even though very few do.

The Commission estimates that this unnecessary insurance takes as much as 14% out of the member’s super balance by the time he or she retires.

The government’s legislation would have fixed these problems by making life, disability, and income-protection insurance “opt-in” for people under 25 and those with small account balances.

Read more: Productivity Commission finds super a bad deal

Insurance would have started only once there was A$6,000 in your account; typically after one year’s full-time work.

The premise was simple: while the change would not be the best for everyone, it would provide the greatest benefit to the most workers at the least cost.

Labor’s amendments would hurt young workers…

Grattan Institute calculations find Labor’s amendments would cost younger Australians at least A$400 million a year.

They would address problems for the small number of young or low-income people who do need such insurance, at the cost of forcing millions more to pay for insurance they don’t need.

As an example, Labor wants automatic insurance cover to commence at age 22 instead of 25.

Our calculations show this would ensure some 43,000 young workers with dependent children or a mortgage would be insured. But another 550,000 young workers with neither would be defaulted into paying for insurance they didn’t need, draining their retirement savings by A$200 million a year.

Similarly, Labor wants super funds to be able to hold onto inactive accounts for 16 months, as opposed to the 13 in the Coalition’s bill.

Labor says this will protect women on maternity leave, but very few women take more than 13 months. The average mother takes 26 weeks, paid and unpaid. Only one in five takes more than 37 weeks.

Read more: We won’t fix female super until we fix female pay

Lifting the threshold to 16 months would mean an extra 3 months of premiums paid by the much larger group who have inactive accounts because they have changed jobs and therefore superannuation funds. Our calculations suggest that could cost them A$100 million a year, and possibly more.

And Labor is insisting that workers in high-risk industries continue to be defaulted into life and disability insurance through super, despite already being insured against accidents at work through workers’ compensation.

If a person dies through a work-related accident in Victoria or New South Wales, their dependants receive compensation in the order of A$750,000. This is far more than they are likely to get from insurance through super, where the average benefit is about A$100,000. Our estimate is that this extension would cost workers A$115 million in unnecessary premiums.

On each of these three proposed Labor amendments, vastly more people would be hurt than helped.

Those who would be helped would be free to opt into insurance without the amendments.

As well, the Coalition legislation allows super funds to apply for an exemption where they can demonstrate that defaulting young workers into insurance would in fact be in their interests.

…and one of the Greens amendments is worse

Faced with this series of bad amendments from Labor, late last week the Coalition struck a deal with the Greens instead.

The new law will scrap exit fees and impose a cap on fees of 3% for account balances below A$6,000, saving Australians A$570 million in the first year.

But the Greens opposed removing default insurance for people aged under 25 and those with super balances below $6,000.

The Greens did this even though only a tiny minority of the 1.4 million Australians aged under 25 and with super need life insurance. They discarded a A$1 billion to A$2 billion per year boost to the retirement savings of younger and low-income Australians.

The party defended its position on the basis that “nobody needs insurance until they need it”.

It’s an argument a bit like asking people to pay for car insurance even though they don’t own cars, on the grounds they one day will.

The practical effect would be to subsidise car owners, or in this case to subsidise the older and wealthier super fund members who do stand to benefit from life and income-protection insurance.

Another chance?

The Coalition reportedly plans to introduce a new bill in the House of Representatives to try again.

But it will have little chance of becoming law before the election expected in May.

In the meantime the industry will be free to extract millions more in insurance payments from the super savings of younger Australians.

It is in its interest to drag things out.

Read more: The Productivity Commission inquiry was just the start. It’s time for a broader review of super and how much it is needed

ref. This time it’s Labor and the Greens standing in the way of cheaper super – http://theconversation.com/this-time-its-labor-and-the-greens-standing-in-the-way-of-cheaper-super-111977

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

A state actor has targeted Australian political parties – but that shouldn’t surprise us

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Tom Sear, PhD Candidate, UNSW Canberra Cyber, Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW

The Australian political digital infrastructure is a target in an ongoing nation state cyber competition which falls just below the threshold of open conflict.

Today Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a statement to parliament, saying:

The Australian Cyber Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the Australian Parliament House computer network.

During the course of this work, we also became aware that the networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals – have also been affected.

Read more: ‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties

But cyber measures targeting Australian government infrastructure are the “new normal”. It’s the government response which is the most unique thing about this recent attack.

The new normal

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – which incorporates the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) – analyses and responds to cyber security threats.

In January ASD identified in a report that across the three financial years (2015-16 to 2017-18) there were 1,097 cyber incidents affecting unclassified and classified government networks which were “considered serious enough to warrant an operational response.”

These figures include all identified intrusions. The prime minister fingered a “sophisticated state actor” for the activity discussed today.

Cyber power states capable of adopting “sophisticated” measures might include the United States, Israel, Russia, perhaps Iran and North Korea. Suspicion currently falls on China.

Advanced persistent threats

Cyber threat actors with such abilities are often identified by a set of handles called Advanced Persistent Threat or APTs.

An APT is a group with a style. They are identifiable by the type of malware (malicious software) they like to deploy, their methods and even their working hours.

For example APT28 is associated with Russian measures to interfere with the 2016 US election

Some APTs have even been publicly traced by cyber security companies to specific buildings in China.

APT1 or Unit 61398 may be linked to the intrusions against the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and possibly the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Unit 61398​has been traced to a non-descript office building in Shanghai.

The advance in APT refers to the “sophistication” mentioned by the PM.

Read more: How we trace the hackers behind a cyber attack

New scanning tool released

The ACSC today publicly released a “scanning tool, configured to search for known malicious web shells that we have encountered in this investigation.”

The release supports this being called a state sponsored intrusion. A web shell is an exploitation vector often used by APTs which enables an intruder to execute wider network compromise. A web shell is uploaded to a web server remotely, and then an adversary can leverage other techniques like privileges and issue commands. A webshell is a form of a malware.

One well-known shell called “China Chopper” is delivered by a small web application, and then is able to “brute force” password guessing against the authentication portal.

If such malware was used in this incident, this explains why politicians and those working at Australian Parliament House were asked to change their passwords following the latest incident.

Journalism and social media surrounding incidents such as these pivot on speculation of how it could be a adversary state, and who that might be.

Malware and its deployment is close to a signature of an APT and requires teams to deliver and subsequently monitor. That the ACSC has released such a specific scanning tool is a clue why they and the prime minister can make such claims.

An intrusion of Australian Parliament House is symbolically powerful, but whether any actual data was taken at an unclassified level might not be of great intelligence import.

The prime minister’s announcement today suggests Australian political parties have been exposed.

How elections are hacked

In 2018 I detailed how there are a few options for an adversary seeking to “hack” an election.

Read more: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Australia should stay away from electronic voting

The first is to “go loud” and undermine the public’s belief in the players, the process, or the outcome itself. This might involve stealing information from a major party, for example, and then anonymously leaking it.

Or it might mean attacking and changing the data held by the Australian Electoral Commission or the electoral rolls each party holds. This would force the agency to publicly admit a concern, which in turn would undermine confidence in the system.

This is likely why today the prime minister said in his statement:

I have instructed the Australian Cyber Security Centre to be ready to provide any political party or electoral body in Australia with immediate support, including making their technical experts available.

They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those responsible for cyber security for all states and territories.

They have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this malicious activity.

Vulnerability of political parties

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s response alluded to what might be another concern of our security and electoral agencies. He said:

…our party political structures perhaps are more vulnerable. Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities.

I have previously suggested the real risk to any election is the manipulation of social media, and a more successful and secretive campaign to alter the outcome of the Australian election might focus on a minor party.

An adversary could steal the membership and donor database and electoral roll of a party with poor security, locate the social media accounts of those people, and then slowly use social media manipulations to influence an active, vocal group of voters.

Shades of grey

This is unlikely to have been the first attempt by a “sophisticated state actor” to target networks of Australian political parties. It’s best not to consider such intrusions as if they “did or didn’t work.”

There are shades of grey.

Adversaries clearly penetrated a key network and then leveraged access into others. But the duration of such a presence or whether they are even still in a network is challenging to ascertain. Equally, the government has not suggested data has been removed.

Recognition but no data theft may be a result of improved security awareness at parliament house and in party networks. The government and its administration have been taking action.

The Department of Parliamentary Services – that supplies ICT to parliament house – has improved security in “network design changes to harden the internal ICT network against cyber attack”.

This month a Joint Committee opened a new inquiry into government resilience following a report from the National Audit Office last year which found “relatively low levels of effectiveness of Commonwealth entities in managing cyber risks”.

Government response is what’s new

As the ASD and my own observation has noted, this is likely not the first intrusion of this kind – it may be an APT with more “sophisticated” malware than previous attempts. But the response and fall out from the government is certainly new.

What is increasingly clear is that attribution has become more possible, and especially within alliance structures in the Five Eyes intelligence network – Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – more common.

Sometimes in cyber security it’s challenging to tell the difference between the noise and signal. The persistent presence of Russian sponsored trolls in Australian online politics, the blurring of digital borders with China and cyber enabled threats to our democratic infrastructure: these are not new.

Australia is not immune to the new immersive information war. Digital border protection might yet become an issue in the 2019 election. In addition to raising concerns our politicians and cyber security agencies will need to develop a strong and clear strategic communication approach to both the Australian public and our adversaries as these incidents escalate.

ref. A state actor has targeted Australian political parties – but that shouldn’t surprise us – http://theconversation.com/a-state-actor-has-targeted-australian-political-parties-but-that-shouldnt-surprise-us-111997

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

How climate change can make catastrophic weather systems linger for longer

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

Many parts of Australia have suffered a run of severe and, in some cases, unprecedented weather events this summer. One common feature of many of these events – including the Tasmanian heatwave and the devastating Townsville floods – was that they were caused by weather systems that parked themselves in one place for days or weeks on end.

It all began with a blocking high – so-called because it blocks the progress of other nearby weather systems – in the Tasman Sea throughout January and early February.

This system prevented rain-bearing cold fronts from moving across Tasmania, and led to prolonged hot dry northwesterly winds, below-average rainfall and scorching temperatures.

Read more: Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again

Meanwhile, to the north, an intense monsoon low sat stationary over northwest Queensland for 10 days. It was fed on its northeastern flank by extremely saturated northwesterly winds from Indonesia, which converged over the greater northeast Queensland area with strong moist trade winds from the Coral Sea, forming a “convergence zone”.

Ironically, these trade winds originated from the northern flank of the blocking high in the Tasman, deluging Queensland while leaving the island state parched.

Unusually prolonged

Convergence zones along the monsoon trough are not uncommon during the wet season, from December to March. But it is extremely rare for a stationary convergence zone to persist for more than a week.

Could this pattern conceivably be linked to global climate change? Are we witnessing a slowing of our weather systems as well as more extreme weather?

There does seem to be a plausible link between human-induced warming, slowing of jet streams, blocking highs, and extreme weather around the world. The recent Tasman Sea blocking high can be added to that list, along with other blocking highs that caused unprecedented wildfires in California and an extreme heatwave in Europe last year.

There is also a trend for the slowing of the forward speed (as opposed to wind speed) of tropical cyclones around the world. One recent study showed the average forward speeds of tropical cyclones fell by 10% worldwide between 1949 and 2016. Meanwhile, over the same period, the forward speed of tropical cyclones dropped by 22% over land in the Australian region.

Climate change is expected to weaken the world’s circulatory winds due to greater warming in high latitudes compared with the tropics, causing a slowing of the speed at which tropical cyclones move forward.

Obviously, if tropical cyclones are moving more slowly, this can leave particular regions bearing the brunt of the rainfall. In 2017, Houston and surrounding parts of Texas received unprecedented rainfall associated with the “stalling” of Hurricane Harvey.

Townsville’s floods echoed this pattern. Near the centre of the deep monsoon low, highly saturated warm air was forced to rise due to colliding winds, delivering more than a year’s worth of rainfall to parts of northwest Queensland in just a week.

The widespread rain has caused significant rises in many of the rivers that feed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and some runoff has made it into the Channel Country and will eventually reach Lake Eyre in South Australia. Unfortunately, little runoff has found its way into the upper reaches of the Darling River system.

Satellite images before (right) and after (left) the floods in northwest Queensland. Courtesy of Japan Meteorological Agency, Author provided

Huge impacts

The social, economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s recent slow-moving weather disasters have been huge. Catastrophic fires invaded ancient temperate rainforests in Tasmania, while Townsville’s unprecedented flooding has caused damage worth more than A$600 million and delivered a A$1 billion hit to cattle farmers in surrounding areas.

Townsville’s Ross River, which flows through suburbs downstream from the Ross River Dam, has reached a 1-in-500-year flood level. Some tributaries of the dam witnessed phenomenal amounts of runoff, reliably considered as a 1-in-2,000-year event

Up to half a million cattle are estimated to have died across the area, a consequence of their poor condition after years of drought, combined with prolonged exposure to water and wind during the rain event.

Read more: Queensland’s floods are so huge the only way to track them is from space

Farther afield, both Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island – located under the clear skies associated with the blocking high – have recorded exceptionally low rainfall so far this year, worsening the drought conditions caused by a very dry 2018. These normally lush subtropical islands in the Tasman Sea are struggling to find enough water to supply their residents’ and tourists’ demands.

Many parts of Australia have tolerated widespread extreme weather events this year, including some records. This follows a warm and generally dry 2018. In fact, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 2005, with only 1998 remaining from last century with reliable records extending back to 1910. Steady warming of our atmosphere and oceans is directly linked to more extreme weather events in Australia and globally.

If those extreme weather events travel more slowly across the landscape, their effects on individual regions could be more devastating still.

ref. How climate change can make catastrophic weather systems linger for longer – http://theconversation.com/how-climate-change-can-make-catastrophic-weather-systems-linger-for-longer-111832

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Toktok No 38 / Summer 2019

Pacific Media Centre

ISBN/code: ISSN 1175-0472

Publication date: Monday, February 18, 2019

Publisher: Pacific Media Centre


Pacific journalism academic Professor David Robie believes the media play a critical role in exposing abuses of power in a world increasingly hostile towards journalists.

However, journalists in the Pacific are frequently “persecuted by smallminded politicians with scant regard for the role of the media,” he says.

Speaking at the 18th University of the South Pacific Journalism Student Awards ceremony at Laucala campus in Suva, Fiji, last October, Dr Robie said despite the growing global dangers surrounding the profession, journalism was critically important for democracy.

Dr Robie said that while such “ghastly fates” for journalists – such as the extrajudicial killing of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey earlier that month – may seem remote in the Pacific, there were plenty of attacks on media freedom to contend with, while trolls in the region and state threats to internet freedom were “also rife”.

Read more


+ New communication award created for Pasifika women

+ Coverage of New Caledonia/Kanaky referendum, November 2018

+ Wansolwara and AUT coverage of Fiji elections, November 2018

Report by Pacific Media Centre

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Asia Pacific Journalism projects and internships 2019

The Pacific Media Centre is running several Asia-Pacific projects again this year and along with Asia Pacific Journalism (Semester 2) we have a new special paper to match – International Journalism Project (JOUR810).

The deadline for applications is Friday, March 1, at 3pm.

Send applications to: jessie.hsu@aut.ac.nz
Copy to: david.robie@aut.ac.nz

This year’s projects on offer:

Bearing Witness climate change project: Two weeks in Fiji in mid-semester break to experience and cover climate issues. Based at the University of the South Pacific. The PMC pays for return airfares, accommodation and a living koha. Apply and if selected, this counts towards JOUR810 international Journalism Project. More information. Contact: david.robie@aut.ac.nz
Possibly a Fiji elections project in the Second Semester mid-semester break (watch this space).

Pacific Media Watch freedom project: 10 hours a week, reporting and editing on media freedom, ethics, educational, training and ownership issues for the digital websites Asia Pacific Report and Pacific Media Watch. More information. Contact: david.robie@aut.ac.nz

NZ Institute for Pacific Research reporting Pacific research project: A part-time internship with the University of Auckland’s Centre for Pacific Studies, but working out of AUT. Organised by the Pacific Media Centre in collaboration with NZIPR. 10 hours a week. This assignment involves researching and news gathering and writing profiles about Pacific researchers and their projects. More Information. Contact: david.robie@aut.ac.nz Managed by Research Operations Manager Dr Gerry Cottrell at NZIPR.

Asia Pacific Report international news website: Internships are available on application. More information. Contact: david.robie@aut.ac.nz

Postgraduate students are preferred but there may be opportunities for final-year journalism major students.

Below: Kendall Hutt, one of the 2017 Bearing Witness climate journalists, talks to David Robie about the project. Video: PMC

Report by Pacific Media Centre

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

“A sophisticated state actor” has hacked the networks of the major political parties, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Parliament.

Recently the Parliament House network was disrupted, and the intrusion into the parties’ networks was discovered when this was being dealt with.

While the government has not identified the “state actor”, the Chinese are being blamed.

Morrison gave the reassurance that “there is no evidence of any electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to ensure the integrity of our electoral system”.

In his statement to the House Morrison said: “The Australian Cyber Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the Australian Parliament House computer network.

“During the course of this work, we also became aware that the networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals – have also been affected.

“Our security agencies have detected this activity and acted decisively to confront it. They are securing these systems and protecting users”.

The Centre would provide any party or electoral body with technical help to deal with hacking, Morrison said.

“They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those responsible for cyber security for all states and territories. They have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this malicious activity,” he said.

“The methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving and this incident reinforces yet again the importance of cyber security as a fundamental part of everyone’s business.

“Public confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes is an essential element of Australian sovereignty and governance,” he said.

“Our political system and our democracy remains strong, vibrant and is protected. We stand united in the protection of our values and our sovereignty”.

Bill Shorten said party political structures were perhaps more vulnerable than government institutions – and progressive parties particularly so.

“We have seen overseas that it is progressive parties that are more likely to be targeted by ultra-right wing organisations.

“Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities. These institutions can be a soft target and our national approach to cyber security needs to pay more attention to non-government organisations,” Shorten said.

ref. ‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties – http://theconversation.com/state-actor-makes-cyber-attack-on-australian-political-parties-111993

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media