“Should a successful, major cyber attack occur, it can cripple a society,” he said.
In particular, attacks on major utilities providers such as power and water, or vital networks such as health or banking, could create what he called “cyber-kinetic effects” – in which the damage to infrastructure caused real-world deaths and injuries.
“The thing that could bring us to our knees most quickly is a cyber incident. We’ve started to come to that realisation and started to protect those systems of national importance.”
Mr MacGibbon is credited with bringing greater attention to the danger of cyber attacks by criminals, foreign governments and malicious hackers, in particular to businesses.
“We’ve taken it from this spooky thing … to one in which everyone around their lounge rooms and boardrooms knows what it means to them and how they can play a role,” he said.
Mr MacGibbon said he and his colleagues had helped improve the understanding that cyber attacks were all but inevitable and businesses needed to understand how to manage the risk and minimise the damage when attacks happened.
Mr MacGibbon will stay in the job through the May 18 election, saying he wants to help ensure it is protected from interference or manipulation, but will step down soon after that and move to the private sector.
Australian Signals Directorate boss Mike Burgess, who himself has brought the electronic spy agency he heads out of the shadows through speeches and media appearances, said MacGibbon had been “a fierce advocate for the importance of cyber security for the community, businesses and governments”.
“He is indeed the face of cyber security in Australia and, through his leadership, helped raise the nation’s cyber security standards,” Mr Burgess said.
A former Australian Federal Police officer, Mr MacGibbon became Mr Turnbull’s special adviser on cybersecurity in May 2016 and from December 2017 held the twin roles of national cyber security adviser and head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre.
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.