Online security

James Paterson’s cyber hard line undermined by site overrun

A pro-Israel organization and political donation vehicle run by shadow cybersecurity minister James Paterson had its website overrun with ads for steroids, potency pills and spyware for a year in his knowledge.

The staunchly hawkish senator is a co-boss and founder of the “Network of Liberal Party Members, Friends and Allies who Support Israel,” an official fundraising entity that has contributed $30,000 to campaign coffers.

But after an investigation of The new daily revealed that its website hosted thousands of pages touting illegal or questionable products, the website was taken down on Wednesday and fired by senior Liberals at Australia’s top cybersecurity agency.

Senator Paterson said through a spokesperson that he had never been responsible for administering the Liberal Friends of Israel website.

A colleague in the upper house issued a statement on behalf of the organization, saying it would now wait for the cyber intelligence agency to respond.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” the statement read.

“We are taking urgent action to resolve the issue and investigate because that is not what the website is for.”

Senator Paterson, the youngest Liberal senator ever, stood out for strident warnings of a Chinese threat last year when he said fellow lawmakers were seeking closer ties to the People’s Army of liberation.

But it seems foreign interference was closer than he suspected.

Questionable content

More than 2,900 pages of questionable content appeared under a banner featuring Senator Paterson – most of which did not appear to have been intentional placements.

They included endorsements of graphic pornography, cryptocurrency schemes, the seemingly non-prescription use of steroids, and an erotic and Russian version of poker.

Pages including a gateway for credit card payments (adult membership was priced at $120) were accessible until just over an hour after queries were sent to the senator.

Records suggest the website was saturated in March of last year, shortly after Senator Paterson took over as Chairman of the Joint House Committee on Intelligence and Security (a body often described by journalists from the gallery as “powerful”).

In this role, he recommended laws giving the government unprecedented powers to monitor the internet to counter foreign threats.

As spokesperson for the Coalition on Cybersecurity, Senator Paterson has recently made key contributions to the public debate on breaches at Medibank and Optus.

The website’s content management system appears to have been poorly structured and did not include any protection against takeover, with loopholes widening in recent years.

Senator Paterson described the recent increase in government fines for cybersecurity breaches from $2 million to $50 million as “too little, too late.”

The Liberal Friends of Israel website was established in 2018.

In September 2021, he donated nearly $5,000 to the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party, according to Electoral Commission records, after donating just under $14,000 in the first year.

Co-boss and state deputy David Southwick did not return a request for comment.

Tim Wilson had no comment, but the former MP’s position in the organization has long lapsed.

The website was first registered by another Liberal senator, David Van, who was then working as a political operative.

“Fallen into disuse”

Senator Van released a statement on behalf of the group on Wednesday and said the website had fallen into disuse.

“The website was run by a staff member who left some time ago and it has not been brought back properly,” the statement said.

“Liberal Friends of Israel does not condone anything put on the website by an outside party.”

Senator Van’s statement did not say whether the group could be sure that all donor financial information had been kept safe or what procedures it would follow to notify them of an apparent loss of control over the site’s content.

A recent shift in federal (and state) politics has given Israel new prominence.

Senator Paterson led the security committee in recommending that the government classify Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization.