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 77.

    #76 My brother-in-law designs bits for nuclear subs. The 'consultants' are certainly were most of the sub budgets end up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    You can bet that the technical people who actually know how to and do address the cyber security challenges are being paid peanuts and kept in a box.

    The 'consultants', 'experts' and various sales people will be floating around spouting anything and taking all this money to no good effect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Like the millennium bug, this drivel will mean nothing but fat pay packets for computer people. As one of them, I say "carry on".

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    #70 What terrorists? 9/11 was 20 stanley knives, 7/7 chappati flour and hair bleach. The boston bombings some DIY explosive in a pressure cooker. The idea Al Que'da are sitting in Pakistan taking out our water supply via PC is "Spooks" not real life. Our water company let 100 litres of diesel leak into a reservoir (rusty fuel tank on a pump). THAT took out the water for 3 days not hacking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    If our government can't even look after our economy then what chance do they have at cyber warfare?

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I have been working in the industry on the web development side for going on 16yrs and yes, cyber security is increasing in so many different ways. For Francis Maude to say its not that bad and were saving money for a rainy day, clearly shows the Gov and Maude haven't a clue. And yet again they've spent a fortune on consultants to line their pockets. It never changes, does it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    As always with government initiatives we come in late in the game, buy into a system that comes out over-budget and not fit for purpose and is scrapped at the cost to the taxpayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Life-critical utilities such as water and electricity should be required by law to have their networks physically separated from the internet (no VPNs either).This would achieve:
    A. Terrorists would have to enter the premises first (limits it to national threads).
    B. It provides a timely buffer for newly evolved threads.
    I would exempt the accounting and other non-vital departments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.


    The gov (of all colours) likes one size fits all approaches.

    This is mostly because it saves them from having to understand things. And means nice and easy soundbytes.

    IT/cyber security is no different from any other department!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Cyber security is my job. The problem is definition - it means many different things: Corporate espionage (inc. state-sponsored), attacks on utilities/critical companies, attacks on govt information, denial of service by quasi-political activists, or theft of consumer data/identities for profit. The solutions for each are very different - I don't think HMG gets this. No wonder it's in a muddle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    While ever Microsoft elaborate & tart up Windows too frequently so they can make more money, they will build in trouble on a plate for crooks with the beta versions. What improvements have been made since Windows NT4 & Office Pro97? I certainly would not use the "cloud" at any price and what do I do with my archive on several hundred small floppies? Too much inbuilt obsolescence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    'Is UK doing enough to protect itself from cyber attack?'

    I doubt it,

    Historically, regardless of who's in power, every major UK gov IT project has ended in massively over expensive failure.

    They just don't know enough about IT to get the products they need without getting ripped off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    63. SimpleOldSailor
    Has anybody checked the crown jewels in the Tower lately?
    Do you think the ones on display are the real ones? Maybe they are but I don't believe it.

    Stick a nice shiny decoy in a prime place. VERY effective form of defence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.


    You mean undo the work started by Tony Benn with the founding of my former employer ICL and carried on enthusiastically by every govenment since? Said work being mainly to make very rich men of the heads of gov IT departments!

    No one in gov now has a clue about IT. So when Fujitsu told the gov it cost £750 for a PC worth £300 the gov just handed over the cash! x100,000+

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Even if one never connected a computer system to the internet it's data & software content will still be subject to many kinds of attack. If you stick your most strategically or financially valuable data & software into it then expect nothing less, the only answer is to be constantly vigilant & even then nothing can be guaranteed. Has anybody checked the crown jewels in the Tower lately?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Government IT project?

    We all know that the government will listen to the big IT firms who will make promises that they can't keep and keep leeching away at the cash until it's all gone or someone sees sense and pulls the plug.

    If it's going to work, the government needs to bring the IT experts in house - putting it all out to tender is the wrong approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.


    You obviously haven't worked in Defence IT! Software is "rolled out" just like hardware would be. Only with much more checks!

    Even basic stuff are years out of date, updates come through 6 months + later than anywhere else. Why? Everything has to go through "governance"

    The ONLY time anything moved quicker than a snails pace was Conflicker. AFTER infection!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Why so shocked that "defence" includes an "offence" element? All of our defence capability consists of offensive weapons! As a defence against another countries missiles, we didn't build a big wall, we built bigger missiles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    A couple of weeks ago we saw the biggest yet battle in cyberspace, when attempts were made to prevent Spamhaus from enabling its users to block malware from the clients of Cyberbunker. Less than 10% of the £650 million is being spent on actions that would help protect from that kind of attack. Almost none is being spent on improving the skills of civiial law enforcement or the private sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Throw in some ridiculous numbers and make a story out of nothing. How is the country supposedly losing this £27bn to cyber attacks??

    Ridiculous scaremongering by interested parties trying to justify their own jobs and salaries against a non-existent threat.


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