Topics: Morrison Government partnering with industry to crack down on text scams; COVID-19 response.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here today with my colleague Paul Fletcher, the Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts. We’re also joined this morning by Andy Penn, the CEO of Telstra, and Andrew Sheridan, one of the vice-presidents at Optus. Today we’re announcing some very strong action from the Morrison Government to shut down scam text messages.
A range of people and groups use bulk text messages to scam, to defraud, or to infect devices with malicious code. Many Australians have received the so-called ‘Flubot’ messages. There are certainly other scam messages around that many Australians have received, particularly over the last 12 to 18 months. These scams encourage people, saying they have missed a phone call; they may have a voicemail message; there may be a text message asking them to click on a link in the message. These are scams, this is not what we want people to be taking advice from at all. These scammers have a range of methods to try and trick people, to scam people into providing information that should not be provided to these scammers, but particularly to click on links which enables malware or ransomware to go on to your devices.
This year SMS messages and phone scams have doubled, compared with those reported to Scamwatch in the previous year, and it has resulted in more than $87 million being lost by the Australian community. So it is a significant amount of damage that is being done here in Australia. The Morrison Government takes these issues very seriously, and what we’ve done is make a very important regulatory amendment that empowers the telecommunications sector to identify and to block SMS scams at the source. So the new regulations explicitly state that blocking malicious SMS messages is necessary for the operation and maintenance of telecommunications systems. This actually provides much greater assurances to our telecommunications industry to employ tools to block these malicious scam messages. I will be inviting both Andy Penn and Andrew Sheridan to make comment in relation to the technical aspects and how industry is going to respond to these challenges, but I will invite my colleague Paul Fletcher to make a few comments.
PAUL FLETCHER: Thank you Karen. It’s great to be here with Karen Andrews, Minister for Home Affairs, with Andy Penn, CEO of Telstra, and Andrew Sheridan, senior executive at Optus, to speak about this latest step in the coordinated and integrated work that the Morrison Government is doing to deal with the problem of scam phone calls and scam texts. We know this is a very significant issue that affects many Australians, and as Minister Andrews said, the reported complaints more than doubled this year compared to last year with losses of over $80 million. We’ve had a series of actions we’ve been taking, including our Reducing Scam Calls Code – which is a regulatory code involving the Communications Alliance – the peak body for the telcos and registered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. There is a task force working on these issues, and we’ve dealt with a number of types of scams already. For example, we’ve had a significant scam in which a call appears to be coming from an organisation like the Australian Tax Office or NBN, and the number that it appears to be coming from is one of the numbers they publish for public use. We’ve been able to largely prevent those calls, using technology which compares where the call has actually come from with the number it purports to come from. So the telcos have been able to block those calls in their network without them ever getting to customers – some 214 million of those calls have been blocked. What Minister Andrews and I are announcing today is a further step to deal with the problem of scam texts and, as Minister Andrews has said, particularly the Flubot scam text has been a significant problem. What we again want to do is make sure that telcos have the power to use their technology to identify and block these texts before customers even realise they’re there. The fact is we’re dealing with organised criminals, mostly located overseas, which are pumping out calls and texts at significant volume. They’re using technology; we need to use technology to combat what they’re doing. I do want to congratulate the telcos for the amount of work and effort they’re putting into this working very closely with the Government. So on that note I’ll now ask Andy Penn, Chief Executive of Telstra, to speak to you.
ANDY PENN: Well, thanks very much, Minister Fletcher. Thanks very much, Minister Andrews. It’s a pleasure to be here today because this is such an important issue. As the government identified in its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, we are seeing a very significant increase in the level of malicious activity, and as Minister Fletcher said these criminals are using all sorts of different techniques. They’ve got resources; they’ve got technological capabilities; and they’re able to switch and develop different strategies. Ultimately there are a range of initiatives that the government and the telcos are endeavouring to implement all under the context of what we call ‘cleaner pipes’ – how do we get rid of malicious activity off the network? Whether it is scam calls; whether it is malicious emails; and – in today’s case – malicious SMS’. To put this in perspective, Last month, we blocked around 353 million potentially malicious emails. We block around 15 million scam calls every month, and we’re already blocking hundreds of thousands of SMS calls. But what this initiative does, is it enables us to get a much richer set of data; much better access to the data that we need to use with our algorithms and our artificial intelligence engines to better identify those SMS’ which are malicious. That’s the name of the game. As you can imagine, there are billions if not trillions of transactions and SMS’ and calls going across telecommunication networks all of the time every year. What we have to try and do is to sift through that and identify those that are malicious and then block them at their source. As you would appreciate with the volume of those numbers, that can’t be done manually; we need to use computer technology; we need to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to be able to do that. Today’s initiative gives us access to the ability to do that with much greater precision when it comes to SMS. So I’m optimistic that as we put in place the trial and we develop this technology we will see an improvement in the reduction rather in the number of malicious SMS’ getting through. So we’re very grateful for the partnership with the Australian Government to help us with the technology to be able to really make a difference on what is a very significant and challenging issue for keeping Australians safe online. So thank you, Ministers.
ANDREW SHERIDAN: Thank you Minister Andrews and Minister Fletcher. Communications services have never been as critical as they are now – for keeping in touch, for work, for study and for accessing entertainment. Unfortunately our services are also being used by criminals to perpetrate crimes against Australians, often the most vulnerable. Scams are a scourge on our communities. As an industry we’re working hard within the existing rules to try and block crimes perpetrated against Australians through voice and text messages. In the first six months of this year Optus blocked 100 million scam voice calls, and earlier this year we blocked 30 million text messages related to the Flubot scam that Minister Andrews mentioned earlier. We also reached out to thousands of customers who had been impacted by that scam to mitigate those impacts. But rules designed to protect customers can also protect criminal activity. We therefore welcome the Government’s focus on this issue and in particular the changes announced today will give us much greater flexibility to block criminals targeting Australians. As Andy Penn said, in particular it will allow us to unlock the power and capability of technology such as artificial intelligence to really get on the front foot against these criminal gangs, many of which reside overseas. So we really thank the Government for its support on this very important issue.
KAREN ANDREWS: Thank you very much. We’re happy to take questions.
QUESTION: Minister, when you say that there are changes being announced today, what exactly is changing in terms of allowing the technology companies and the communications companies to go after these?
KAREN ANDREWS: What we are doing is making sure that we are changing the regulations, to assist the telcos to be able to take the action that they need to stop these messages being able to be transmitted here in Australia. So these are actually quite comprehensive regulations that are being put in place. We have worked very closely with the Australian telecommunications industries to make sure that these changes are going to be appropriate. We have specifically made it very clear that blocking malicious SMS messages is absolutely necessary. This was a key step that the telecommunications sector has particularly asked for to enable them to take the action that they need. Andy, I might ask you to add further to that.
ANDY PENN: Thanks very much Minister. As Andrew said we do a lot of threat blocking at the moment and the way threat blocking essentially works is we need to try and monitor the traffic that’s going across the network whilst maintaining customers’ privacy. But then through that, identify signals or pieces of data that actually give us a clue as to whether that’s malicious activity or not, and we do that by comparing other data sources. There are a number of data sources around that world that we can do this with, including with the Australian Cyber Security Centre for the Australian Government. What this is doing – this regulatory change – is to make it more flexible for us to access that data, so we can actually better perfect our algorithms and they can learn more so they can actually have a bitter hit rate in identifying what’s malicious activity compared to what’s legitimate activity. Once we know it’s malicious we can go to its source – where it’s originating from – and then we can block that; whether it’s a website; whether it’s an automated call; whether it’s an SMS. That is the name of the game for cleaner pipes – it’s ‘identify the malicious activity’, ‘identify its source’ and ‘block it before it gets to our customers’.
QUESTION: Minister Andrews, can I ask you about the spread of Omicron. Are you concerned that we’ll have international students and migrants coming back to Australia from Wednesday? Is there a need to defer those arrivals? And what do you say to Australians who might be concerned about a tightening of the restrictions? Do you believe that they’ll be able to tolerate more restrictions if that’s necessary in the coming weeks?
KAREN ANDREWS: I’m very happy to answer that question for you, but can I ask if there are any other further questions at the moment for today’s announcement?
QUESTION: Just on the issue of spam text messages, is it time to change the political exemption for MPs, given that we have seen Craig Kelly use spam text messages in a way spreading vaccine hesitancy? Are you concerned that that avenue will be used to spread misinformation in the lead-up to the election?
PAUL FLETCHER: I’m happy to address that one. So the first thing is to make it clear that we’re talking about two very separate categories of activity here. One of these is high volume malicious criminal activity, whereas the text messages being sent in a political context, as we think about the policy settings there we need to think about the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution which had High Court has identified. I make the point, of course, that the TGA – the Therapeutic Goods Administration – has indicated it is pursuing this matter within their powers, in terms of some specific content. Of course, I also make the point that when you look at the vaccine levels – Australians are now over 70 per cent double vaccinated over 16 – Australians are making their decisions on the basis of the health information provided to them by the Commonwealth Government and state governments and appropriate authorities. So I would draw a distinction between the issue we have here and that separate issue.
QUESTION: On scams, would this require the Australian Signals Directorate to have a bigger role in this? We know they’re going after international scammers. Would that require any changes to their legislative framework?
PAUL FLETCHER: This is essentially about actions taken by the telcos in the operations of their networks and in the use of their artificial intelligence technology. So it’s about ensuring that they are in a position to deploy the capability and the technology that they have.
QUESTION: You talk about having already blocked, you know, tens of millions of calls under the current rules. Under these new changes how many more do you expect will be blocked or restricted? Will it be half of the ones we’re currently seeing? Can you give us a ballpark of what we do think might happen?
ANDREW SHERIDAN: I’m happy to answer that. Look, we don’t have a figure on that obviously because we haven’t had that capability. What it particularly allows us to do is to… well, rather than today where we might be looking at things reactively – for example, the Flubot example that we gave earlier – you know, we understood what is happening in the community and then were able to take action. What this legislation will allow us to do, will be much more proactive and stop these scams at source a lot earlier, and we expect there will be a likely significant increase in the number of calls and scams that are blocked. But we don’t have a figure on that.
QUESTION: It won’t block all the calls and all the texts, though, will it? We’re still going to see some level of this activity continue?
ANDREW SHERIDAN: We’ll see things change over time and we’ll see things build up. As the capability improves and we get more learning, then we’ll start to see obviously an increase in our capability to block those. But we are dealing with very sophisticated international groups that are using the power of technology; and we will use the power of technology back against them.
PAUL FLETCHER: The comment that I’d add to that is as you can see in the physical evidence on the stage here, you’ve got the Australian Government working very closely with the big telcos in a coordinated fashion, and we’ve been doing that for quite some time. The announcement that Minister Andrews is making today is about yet a further step in that integrated path that we’ve been taking. Part of that is vigilance, because as Andrew Sheridan and as Andy Penn mentioned – we’re up against organised international criminals and the game continues to evolve. So we need to stay one step ahead. But if you look back at what we did after we set up the Reducing Scam Calls Code, the number I quoted earlier, 214 million of those calls across the telco sector blocked to date. That shows the nexus between these decisions taken – collectively – and then the impact in terms of calls being blocked. So we are confident that we’re going to see very significant numbers of scam texts being blocked. In the nature of it, people don’t know what has been blocked and hasn’t got to them. But we know from what’s happening within the networks now there’s a lot of calls and texts being blocked, and this will add extra power to the capabilities the telcos have.
QUESTION: So even with the efforts that you’ve made on this, the phone call blocking front, we’re still seeing people – and I know myself – receive regular calls from Namibia and Uzbekistan and that sort of thing. So is that sort of an acknowledgement that really no matter what we do in space there will always be some leakage and criminal enterprises will find a way to get through? It’s a bit of a whack on the whole situation?
PAUL FLETCHER: I don’t think I’d use that language. What I’d say is we need to be very focused on getting at the volumes and blocking as many of these as we can at every stage of the process. And part of that involves being very coordinated and very systematic between the Government and the telcos and being quick to respond. While there’s always more to do, I think you have seen a very sharp increase in the tempo of response from both government and the telcos.
KAREN ANDREWS: And if I could add to that by saying that what we are dealing with here is criminals – many of them are transnational very serious organised criminals – indeed criminal gangs – who are responsible for these actions. So they will constantly change their method of operation and they will refine what they are doing. What we are doing here in Australia, what the telcos are doing, is looking at using artificial intelligence and machine learning. So over time as more data comes in, the machine learning will make sure that our artificial intelligence escalates and that we will be able to deal in a much more effective way with these scams as they come through. But we all need to understand that this is evolving. It’s evolving for the telecommunications sector to be able to deal with this. But we also need to be very mindful that the criminals will look at every opportunity that they can to scam Australians. So what the Government is doing is working very closely with industry to limit the opportunities for Australians to be scammed.
QUESTION: I might return to the question before: do we need to delay or defer the return of international students and migrants amid the uncertainty about this new strain of the virus, and do you believe that Australians could tolerate more restrictions on their lives?
KAREN ANDREWS: So let’s be clear – Australians have actually done very well. They have rolled their sleeves up. We are at over 86 per cent of eligible Australians, who have been double vaxxed. That is a very high vaccination rate – it’s one of the very highest in the world. The Government has made announcements recently that go to a travel bubble with Singapore, which is now operating, and with the announcement that we would be opening our borders to invite and welcome back international students; many of our economic cohorts including skilled workers; and other specific visa subcategories. What we are now faced with is the Omicron variant. We are in the very early stages of understanding that variant and what its impact will be. Now, as a Government we will continue to do what we always have done – which is listen and take careful note of the health advice – so a lot of work is being undertaken here in Australia and also overseas to look at the impacts of that variant. We will continue to take advice; we will continue to monitor that situation; but let’s also be very clear that we do need international students to come back here to study in Australia. They’re a very important part of our education sector but also the economic cohort. We do know that we have significant shortages of skilled workers here, and we need to get those skilled workers into Australia. So the Government will take advice, but we are looking to progress the opening as much as we possibly can.
QUESTION: So should international students or migrants who have flights booked already, should they this week be reconsidering that? Would you consider perhaps having a tiered system of ruling out certain students of certain countries based on the spread of this new variant?
KAREN ANDREWS: We have made it very clear that restrictions now apply to people who are seeking to come into this country from southern Africa – exceptions being for Australian citizens, permanent residents, their immediate family. What I would say to everyone who is looking to come to Australia is to monitor the situation; look at Smartraveller; get the latest advice. But at this stage we are waiting to get further advice from our health professionals, and we will continue to monitor the situation.
QUESTION: Is it prudent for states that haven’t reached that 80 per cent threshold now to maybe continue keeping their borders restricted to the rest of the nation until more is known about this virus?
KAREN ANDREWS: Australia’s vaccination rate – double dose – sits at above 86 per cent. That is an excellent vaccination rate for Australians, and we should all be very proud of that outcome. What I would say particularly in relation to states that have border restrictions in place is that they need to look at what the health advice is that’s coming in. But this is Australia and we would certainly be looking at having a uniform response.
QUESTION: Minister, on a broader picture, do you think Australians should, I guess, sort of start getting ready for this sort of dipping in and out of certain restrictions as new variants sort of emerge? So we had the Delta variant, there’s a few other variants that have caused us a lot of trouble. Now we’ve got this Omicron variant. Should Australians just generally prepare themselves for things like this to be in and out of certain restrictions at certain times?
KAREN ANDREWS: I believe it was probably around 12 months ago where I made the statement personally at a number of press conferences that we needed to be able to live and work in the COVID environment in which we found ourselves. We have seen various variants come through into Australia. We’re now facing the Omicron variant. I think that the health professionals would be very confident to say that there may well be other variants that follow beyond this. Given that Australia has a very high vaccination rate I think we are in a good place to be able to manage the situation. And, yes, we need to be prepared for whatever COVID throws our way. So that may well be that we need to look at how we’re going to manage subsequent variants coming into this country. But our focus at this point in time is keeping Australians safe and secure, making sure that we go through the process of reopening the border to get in the skilled workers and the international students that we need here, but obviously being aware that in the future we may well face other variants coming into this country.
QUESTION: Minister Fletcher, have you heard from social media countries in relation to the draft policy released over the weekend, and are you concerned that they may restrict services to Australia as they did earlier in the year regarding changes to news organisations?
PAUL FLETCHER: As the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have made clear in announcing this policy, obviously following the careful Cabinet deliberation, we will be releasing the exposure draft. We’ll work through the details, so I think all of those questions are premature. We’ll engage with all of the stakeholders, as we have on other matters such as the news media bargaining code as we go through a careful process.
QUESTION: How would you envision them being able to protect the identification of people? Would that be storing their drivers licence? Do you have a sort of rough expectation for them?
PAUL FLETCHER: Again, we’ll go through the detailed consultation. The exposure draft will be released and we’ll work through those issues. We’re very clear on the principles that the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have stated. We can’t allow people to hide behind anonymity who engage in online trolling. We’ll work through all the details.
KAREN ANDREWS: Thank you.