Is UK doing enough to protect itself from cyber attack?


Is the UK any safer from cyber attack today than it was in 2010? Watch Mark Urban's full Newsnight report

In 2010 the British government designated the protection of computer networks as one of the country's most important national security priorities. In its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) it pledged, "the National Cyber Security Programme will be supported by £650m of new investment over the next four years".

What exactly has this investment bought, three years on?

Speaking on and off the record to insiders - from the government, intelligence agencies and security industry - it is apparent that the achievements in defending the UK from this threat have disappointed many.

Much of the available funding may actually have been directed at improving the UK's ability to target other countries' computer secrets.

A woman uses one of a line of cash dispensers in central London Critical national infrastructure could be affected if computer networks are not properly defended

Some point out that even if everything had gone to plan, an investment averaging £162.5m per year over four years could only have a limited effect on such a huge problem.

Security experts estimate that there are about 50 million cyber attacks a year in the UK, a number which they say is growing rapidly all of the time, and they put the damage to the UK economy at up to £27bn last year.

Yet, even according to government plans, less than half the total money committed has so far been spent.

There are suggestions that early strategising consumed many precious months and that the Cabinet Office, which is supposed to be giving overall direction to the project, has not yet allocated much of the money to specific projects.

"Some people have… said we're saving money for a rainy day," Mark Phillips, who helped draught the government's strategy, and is now at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) think tank, says. "To which my response is that we already have a rainy day, we have a high threat already with cyber."

Francis Maude, the minister responsible for cyber security, disputed this interpretation in a statement to BBC Newsnight, saying:

Some of the things that have resulted from the government's investment

A computer keyboard and a padlock
  • The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) took down 36 website domains that sold credit card data
  • 15,000 fraud websites were suspended
  • GCHQ announced a scheme to help companies deal with cyber attacks and give guidance on response to a compromise
  • Eight universities have been awarded Academic Centre for Excellence in Cyber Security and Research status for conducting world class research in cyber security
  • The Cyber Security Information Sharing Partnership (CISP) is to be launched

"Far from abdicating our responsibility on funding, to date we have spent over one third in the first two years of the programme. We are on target and in line with our public spending forecasts. The rapidly changing nature of cyber threats to the UK demonstrates the need for a flexible cyber security response so we reassess our spending priorities on a regular basis as was always the case. This is a prudent, sensible, smart approach as we move forward into the final two years of the programme."

Even if the full £650m is spent, as those close to the policy insist it will be, it is apparent that this will be done over five years rather than the originally promised four.

The other striking thing about the capability that has been taking shape is its offensive character; official figures show that 59% of the planned spend is meant to go to the intelligence agencies.

"We can achieve a tremendous amount these days through remote exploitation rather than face to face meetings with agents," says an MI6 officer referring to attacks on computer networks.

"GCHQ's offensive capability gives the UK an edge," a former senior officer at the eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham told me, adding, "a large proportion of that money has [therefore] gone into those capabilities".

John Bassett, now at RUSI and formerly GCHQ's Senior UK Liaison Officer in Washington, adds that much of the new government funding has gone on, "existing programmes... designed to get a really strong grip on global situational awareness".

Is this just a polite way of referring to stealing others' secrets?

Mr Bassett suggests that understanding the threat to UK computer security requires the exploration of adversary capabilities.

This argument, that the UK's defence requires the penetration of other countries' computer networks makes it hard to define whether most of the British cyber-security spend is actually going on offensive work - hacking for want of a better term - or whether that activity only accounts for some of it.

Mark Phillips, Chief of Staff to Security Minister 2010 Mark Phillips says an offensive programme was 'one of the two unstated objectives' of the UK plan

However, everybody one speaks to within the circle of secrecy assumes that this type of activity has consumed a significant proportion, measurable in the tens of millions, of the UK's total spending on cyber elements.

That emphasis on offensive work is remarkable given that the SDSR and the government cyber security strategy published in 2011 explained the rationale for the new spending almost entirely in terms of protecting the UK economy and government from attack.

Indeed, at an SDSR press briefing in 2010 a senior government official who I asked whether the UK even had an offensive cyber programme declined to confirm that it did, although another official subsequently contacted me to say that there was such an effort.

Mark Phillips, who was present at many of the meetings that formulated both policies, told us that the offensive programme was "one of the two unstated objectives" of the cyber security plan. The other, he implied, was providing support to allies, which in an intelligence context is usually taken as a reference to the US.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) meanwhile has taken 14% of the new money for cyber security, spreading it more or less evenly between offensive and defensive roles, insiders suggest.

It has launched Project Watchtower - a series of programmes designed to crated a super secure cyber architecture for the MoD -in an attempt to secure the military's computer networks from sophisticated attacks, with experts suggesting some good progress has been made.

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Nightmare scenarios such as hijackers taking control of an aircraft via its computerised systems, or shutting down a national power system or a country's entire internet, appear feasible... To what extent such risks are exaggerated by security firms touting for business is open to argument”

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On the offensive side, the MoD has established its Joint Cyber Unit, based at Cheltenham. The impetus for the creation of this outfit, several dozen strong, came from Nato's bombing campaign in Libya, says one Whitehall player.

Ministers asked why the MoD did not have the capability to switch off the Libyan air defence system from afar by means of cyber attack.

One MoD insider argues that the UK is some way from being able to take action of this kind, or match the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus on Iran's uranium enrichment plant, widely believed to have been carried out by the US, although they have not officially admitted it, but that the hold-up is on the policy and legal front rather than the issue of technical ability.

There has been a lively discussion among Whitehall law officers about whether the use of such a cyber attack would constitute an act of war or could under certain circumstances, for example switching off power to a hospital, be construed as a war crime.

Increasingly it is in this area, the development of cyber weapons or disruptive malware, rather than in the long established game of stealing secrets - state or commercial - that attention is focussing in the security community.

In 2011-12, for example, the US Department of Homeland Security tracked 23 cyber attacks on companies related to the national gas pipeline system. They assessed that the targeted information would have allowed an intruder to blow up hundreds of compressor stations, blacking out the US energy grid, "at the click of a mouse". Oil installations in Iran and Saudi Arabia have also had their control equipment hit by malware.

Mr Maude stressed to us that the UK's programme is "not just about securing government systems, though it helps do that too, but underpins all our objectives in tackling cyber crime, protecting our critical national infrastructure and making the UK one of the safest places in the world to do business in cyberspace." He noted that the Economist Intelligence Unit has put Britain top among the G20 countries for creating a secure environment for networks.

Rashmi Knowles is Chief Security Architect at RSA RSA's Rashmi Knowles says a lot more has to be done to raise awareness about cyber security

Notwithstanding this accolade, there is widespread concern about the vulnerability of the UK's national infrastructure to attacks of this kind.

"I don't think anyone is any more secure than they were," said Rashmi Knowles, Chief Security Architect at RSA, a leading cyber security firm, when I asked her whether Britain's infrastructure is any better protected than when the government launched its initiative in 2010.

In part this stems from constant evolution of the threat, with hackers far more dynamic, constantly evolving new techniques, than the government bureaucracies that try to stop them. As for the work that has been done to thwart them, some sectors, such as banking, have a far greater interest in investing in secure networks than the likes of public utilities.

Nightmare scenarios such as hijackers taking control of an aircraft via its computerised systems, or shutting down a national power system or a country's entire internet, appear feasible in the light of the US gas pipeline case. To what extent such risks are exaggerated by security firms touting for business is open to argument.

What almost all parties in the cyber security sector agree is that awareness of the risks is growing. For the government experts trying to devise a response, the risk is that their solutions may be judged inadequate to the scale of that challenge.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    we keep arresting people who hack government computers, should be employing them they are clearly more capable then the government is...

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    30 Oldtimerwhat
    The real problem is the poor intellectual quality of those carrying out the programming - witness a certain company in Seattle. No serial algorithmic machine can be made proof against hacking - as was well proven at Bletchley Park in the last war. A true parallel machine would do better, but we stopped development of those 50 years ago!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    The UK knows it must ramp up offensive capability. Much like with nuclear weapons cyber weapons are being developed (and used) by the US, with the British government lagging behind - initially opposed to weaponisation but eventually coming around. Recent activity in China (Mandiant recently reported on the "Comment Crew", very well equipped hackers in the centre of Shanghai) is also worrying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Compressor stations will not rely on one transducer connected into the interface between hard & soft ware. It will have secondary fail safe if it has been designed properly with no connection to computers other than a passive alarm. If over speed /high pressure cut-outs shut down a station it is not as drastic as it blowing up. It would have been more of an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    No matter how many security measures are put in place, there is always a way around them. £650 million is a lot of money, but hackers will always get away with it. Hacking has become one of those crimes that is illegal, but will the police/government do anything about it ... no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    So we employ a bunch of hackers to defend us from some anonymous hackers? What happens when the project budget drops? I'm going to take a wild guess that the number of cyber-threats suddenly doubles as those that are responsible for safeguarding the systems also know how to hide from them. It's like employing an arsonist as a fireman!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    There appears to be some sort of problem with the BBC news servers. For some reason a number of rugby union articles about the Lions have had the words 'Jonny Wilkinson' inserted for no apparent reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Cyber crime & Corporations etc; is one thing but it amazes me how vulnerable home computers & mobile devices are, even if you take some sensible precautions - and my reason for saying that? Take a look at some of the home computing magazines they are filled with warnings about the vulnerabilities of browsers, operating systems, the internet & so on. The whole business is in need of a sea change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    #25 (mando) - you really should check things before - the vast majority of this money is going nowhere near any private sector outsourcing contract, in fact most of it is destined for GCHQ with other government initiatives picking up the smaller fractions.

    More generally, £650million is chicken feed if we are really talking about protecting the UK. We need to invest serious money now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Sometimes it depends on what you mean by "cyber attack". I sometimes get one of those phone calls from a purported computer security company, trying to persuade me to let them into my computer to fix a problem they were seeing reported. Sometimes, after my polite responses, they resort to swearing. One told me my IP address was so I told him i knew my address was

    He swore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Remember the the bank that shall not be named which had the problem with its cash machines, it was attacked with a virus enbbed on a cash card. Be warned that was a trial run.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Back in the 19th C, there were skilled artizans who pinned the drums on musical boxes, a task that required a good knowledge of music, as well as the requisite skill. Sadly, there is not a single example of a world class piece of music written by a drum pinner.There is little difference in principle between a musical box and a computer - both are serial programmed machines and share that drawback.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Say 1 security expert costs... a wild guesstimate... £100k a year. You employ 500 of them that's 50 million a year. You spend a "one off" £100mil on some sort of brand new infrastructure.
    So where is the rest of the money going? Ah.. yes... it's called "profit" for the private sector company which won the outsourcing contract. Kerching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    £650 million would not be enough to stop a "fire sale"

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The first problem is that the UK has not published any reliable statistics to quantify the risk (and losses) from cyber-crime/cyber-espionage. How can you measure whether £650m is well spent without this?

    The often quoted BAE Detica figure of £27bn is methodologically flawed. The recently published (April 2013) data breach report from BIS only had 1400 respondents & was skewed to big business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The most secure data is that which is never put on a Computer.
    Much harder to break into a building get past security then break into a safe, all protected by CCTV and Alarms than to crack a firewall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    People protect people NOT governments.
    Wakey Wakey!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "Ministers asked why the MoD did not have the capability to switch off the Libyan air defence system from afar by means of cyber attack."

    Because we live in the real world, not a movie.

    Follow up questions included "Why didn't Jack Bauer stop the Boston bombings?" and "Hackers is a documentary, right?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Considering that most "Government IT experts (haha)" would have trouble finding their own backside in a Thunderstorm I do not expect a great deal of success.

    It is up to the individual (company or person) to secure their own data.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I used to do support for a rather important Gov department when it comes to protecting this country.

    I lost count of the number of Generals calling up to have their passwords reset because they "have lost the piece of paper with it written on"!!

    These are some of the people involved in taking very imporant military decisions for this country!


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