US warns Chinese-made cranes leave Aussie worksites exposed to hackers

By Jarrod
4 Min Read

Experts warn popular Chinese-made cranes found in Australia’s ports and construction sites could expose the nation to cyberattacks, sparking calls for the government to match a major US crackdown.

United States President Joe Biden issued an executive order to improve cybersecurity protections at American ports last week after Chinese-backed cyberattacks exposed potential security risks posed by the country’s industrial giant ZPMC.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI found intelligence-gathering equipment on a cargo ship delivering ZPMC cranes to Baltimore, sparking concerns from our own ministers over similar shipments recently made to Australian shores. 

According to US Coast Guard cyber command chief Rear Admiral John Vann, the investigation into the company’s 200 operating cranes revealed they were potentially “vulnerable to exploitation”.

“By design, these cranes may be controlled, serviced, and programmed from remote locations,” he said.

Claiming the investigation exposed a “real strategic risk”, US Deputy National Security adviser Anne Neuberger said the nation would invest a massive $A30 billion to replace the cranes with locally sourced alternatives.  

The Chinese-owned company is responsible for supplying over 80 per cent of cranes in the United States and has recently shipped machinery to ports in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle, along with other equipment and materials to construction projects like Victoria’s West Gate Tunnel.

Australia’s biggest ports operator, DP World, who just so happens to operate the Chinese ZPMC cranes, has already been forced to close its operations last November after a cyberattack delayed the delivery of goods across the country.

Opposition Home Affairs Spokesman James Paterson urged the government to follow the Biden administration’s lead and “use the powers available to them under the previous government’s critical infrastructure reforms” to mitigate the cyber security risks. 

“We cannot afford to give foreign authoritarian states privileged access to the technology that enables our ports by using high-risk vendors,” he told the Herald Sun. 

Strategic Analysis Australia Founder and former top defence official Michael Shoebridge agreed with US security chiefs that the cranes could be espionage tools, and warned that the country had a “far bigger and more dangerous” intelligence community than Russia.

“The reason we had to strengthen our laws back in 2018 was because of China’s intelligence intrusions into Australia to corrupt our political system,” he told reporters earlier this week. 

“A policy that incentivises replacement of Chinese-made cranes makes sense.”

The call for an Australian cyber crackdown also comes in the wake of a damning report from ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess, where he revealed China’s leading spy agency had run several espionage efforts in the country and even successfully infiltrated an ex-politician in parliament. 

“ASIO is aware of one nation-state conducting multiple attempts to scan critical infrastructure in Australia and other countries, targeting water, transport and energy networks,” he said.

“The reconnaissance is highly sophisticated, using top-notch tradecraft to map networks, test for vulnerabilities, knock on digital doors and check the digital locks.”

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By Jarrod
Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.