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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  • Comment number 97.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    When the computer hardware we use is being largely produced in China and the software it runs written all over the world who knows what is hidden in these products just waiting for somebody to use. This is without anyone trying to attack your system from the internet. Unless every product is checked and we do not have the time and maybe the people with the skills to do this it is too late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Somewhat worryingly many international lawyers reckon it would be legal to use phsyical war to defend yourself from virtual attack......

    given the capacity for national "intelligence" services to make mistakes (they are human after all) the results could be hidious....

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    No-one should doubt that UK companies are targets for industrial espionage on a significant scale. One major defence company had outsiders wandering around their systems. The incompetence is in many firms and an over reliance on outsourcing rather than building core skills in-house, which means making investment. Pay peanuts get monkeys. One bank is paying a head of security less than £100k.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    The internet is a useful tool - but it is used too much, for too many things that should have stayed off line where they were easier to police.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Next time we trace where cyber attacks come from...aka China and Russia, just bill their governments, if they refuse then attack back. It might not be cricket so to speak but a stiff upper lip doesn't always work, sometimes you have to go on the offensive. Besides if everyone steals secrets from everyone then no one wins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    A couple of points. Far to few scientists in government. We can't expect MP's who are mostly lawyers and bankers to have a clue about security. So they end up taking advice charged way over the odds.

    Second point. Why are things like our infrastructure connected to the internet? Surely an intranet would be much more secure as it's isolated from the rest of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @85 Thee UK Government aren't crap at I.T, They're just crap at everything full stop, why should their stupidity towards I.T. be singled out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    79. Nikki - I spotted the troll!

    81.Fishermans_Enemy "Its extremely easy for criminals with the idiots we have in charge."
    Doh - wake up it's the internet - there is no one in 'charge'

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    70.Michael “Life-critical utilities such as water... by law to have their networks physically separated from the internet (no VPNs either).This would achieve”…
    Even more expensive bills.

    79. Nikki

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    It has probably done more than spending £3 billion+ on climate change over the same amount of time...

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Oh look a government IT project that under delivers, gosh I am surprised - not

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Anyone who has used HMRC's horror of a website knows how crap the government are at IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Who protects us from the threat of Government IT decisions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    If the government were serious about this they wouldn't be telling the gas and electricity companies to push their customers to install £400 "smart meters" that communicate over the 2G phone system.
    Needless expense, increased exposure to risk, no measurable benefit - a more suspicious person might suggest 'follow the money'.
    ( or maybe the government have decided power cuts are inevitable )

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    A lot of internet fraud and hacking is performed by talented little oiks, who would no doubt have good and useful careers with their skills. Lets be honest, when a computer is your wife/husband, your friend and your hobby what time is there for earning other people money?
    On a more serious note, in the IT world some people get the same joy out of undoing the Knots that others get tying them!!!!

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    Comment number 81.

    @79 Well it is more complex than that, I despair at the amount of times my personal information probably has been sold by companies over the past few decades, and have been swarming around in the internet 'soup' of data then has been stolen or still has the potential to be stolen by criminal gangs to then use me as tool in crime. Its extremely easy for criminals with the idiots we have in charge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Digital automated systems in hospitals, aircraft, electricity generation, Oil and gas supply, nuclear electricity generation, nuclear waste processing and much more are potentially susceptible to internet or satellite vectored malware. Stuxnet infiltrated very successfully in Iran

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The best solution is to stop pissing off people in foreign countries. Which means stop waging war on people because we don't agree with their religion, and stop seeing everyone but the UK rich as resources to exploit.

    That's hard though, so *shrug*.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Look at the ages and intellects of those carrying out attacks, then look at the age and inexperience of those charged with governing - it's not rocket science! Politicians like Theresa May don't know the difference between VPN and Voip! Just look at her proposed snooping bill - completely and fundamentally USELESS but supported by idiot MP's anyway. Bring in youth who know what they are doing!


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