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How Australian SMEs can prepare for stricter critical infrastructure regulations

The Government has changed the rules: critical infrastructure assets are no longer the exclusive preserve of large corporations, and SMEs need to ensure they are compliant.

Over time, we have learned that our most vital assets are dangerously exposed to cyber-attacks and other disruptive events perpetrated by bad actors seeking to harm the national interest or simply extract steep ransoms. 

The Commonwealth Government has addressed this by pursuing reforms intended to shore up the security of the critical infrastructure sector. The Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (the Act), passed three years ago, ramped up regulatory scrutiny on the ownership and operation of assets classified as critical infrastructure. However, critical infrastructure assets were limited to certain ports, electricity, gas, and water assets. 

What qualified then as critical in the eyes of policymakers? A bigger footprint meant more importance. Critical electricity assets, for instance, comprised networks, systems, or interconnectors for the transmission or distribution of electricity to ultimately service at least 100,000 customers.

But that was before the COVID-19 crisis. If anything, the pandemic demonstrated the criticality of any number of sectors to the nation’s health and wellbeing. The surge in cyber-attacks accompanying the pandemic, often targeting these key sectors, illustrated their extreme vulnerability.

Something had to change. Policymakers took up the challenge, proposing amendments to the Act. Currently before Parliament, the Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 will have the effect of expanding the number of regulated sectors to include banking/finance, communications, data and the cloud, defence, education, research and innovation, food and grocery, health, energy, space, transport, and water.

In many of these sectors, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) proliferate, along with big players. So, how can these formerly unregulated businesses prepare for myriad changes in the offing?

Read more: Cybersecurity threats increase during pandemic

How smaller businesses can ensure compliance

It won’t be easy, but technologies are available to ease the transition. At Noggin, we recommend regulated entities invest in software solutions purposefully designed to protect critical infrastructure assets and address stricter compliance drivers.

Positive Security Obligations (PSOs), for instance, are representative of this stricter compliance regime. PSOs consist of requirements for regulated entities to: 

  • Adopt and maintain an all-hazards critical infrastructure risk management program
  • Report serious cyber-security incidents to the government
  • Provide ownership and operation information to a Register of Critical Infrastructure Assets 

These aren’t the only proposed regulations. Quite a bit remains to be hashed out at the sectoral level. However, we do know that proposed changes to the existing risk management framework for critical infrastructure will be extensive – especially for smaller businesses with no prior experience of the first framework. 

The changes include: 

  • Requiring certain entities relating to a critical infrastructure asset to provide certain information and to notify if certain events occur 
  • Allowing the Minister to require certain entities relating to a critical infrastructure asset to do, or refrain from doing, an act or thing provided the Minister is satisfied that there is a security risk
  • Allowing the Secretary to require certain entities relating to a critical infrastructure asset to provide certain information or documents
  • Allowing the Secretary to undertake an assessment of a critical infrastructure asset to determine if there is a risk to national security relating to the asset     
  • Digital solutions can help bring clarity. For example, critical infrastructure protection solutions consolidate the threat and risk picture across all operating assets under management and provide the visibility-enhancing tools government, state-owned corporations, and businesses (of all sizes) require to achieve an “all threats” perspective. This perspective encompasses physical, cyber, personnel, and supply chain. 

Key capabilities include:

  • Maintain key details of assets and stakeholder contacts
  • Assess risks and threats using industry-standard tools
  • Conduct security threat assessments, inspections, crowded place, and impact assessments
  • Disseminate notifications and products, such as official advice to asset custodians
  • Tracklogs and tasks
  • Prepare for or respond to planned events or incidents

Both regulator and operator user groups also have access to the functionality, a valuable feature-set. So too are tools that provide situational awareness to stakeholders, given the Government’s intent to boost identification and threat-sharing capabilities among regulated entities.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our traditional understanding of critical infrastructure. Now, more entities than ever are directly implicated in the nation’s wellbeing. 

No matter how small, those organisations will have to shoulder the burden of mitigating security risks. But with critical infrastructure protecting software solutions, they won’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Unlike the many costly systems that purposely price out the SME market, these solutions get organisations up and running quickly, driving the continuous improvements necessary to ensure compliance and keep networks, systems, services, and the nation safe. 

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James Boddam-Whetham

James Boddam-Whetham

James Boddam-Whetham is the CEO of Noggin, a software company that provides innovative incident management solutions for managing emergencies, risk, crisis, compliance, operational security, business continuity, work safety, and more.

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