Escaping the “black hole”: how to measure cybercrime

How big a threat is cybercrime to UK industry, and how do we deal with it?

The vast majority of parliamentary committee reports do not prompt headlines containing phrases like “losing the war”, “falling into a black hole”, and “a bigger threat than nuclear attack”. Last week’s Home Affairs Select Committee report on e-crime was a notable exception. For those who make a living fighting cyber-crime, however, the report held very little that would shock. Indeed, my colleague Art Coviello spoke at length to the Committee, and whilst he agreed with their assessment that we weren't winning the battle, he had considerable praise for the way both British business and government were coming together around the challenge.

Now the dust has settled somewhat, it’s worth separating reality from hyperbole, and perhaps considering what might actually be done about the problem. To do so, we should begin on a positive note. The headlines came about because the UK features so high on the list of targets for cyber criminals but, in some ways, this is as reassuring as it is a point of concern. The reason we're such a persistent target of attack is because we have so much worth stealing – financial assets, intellectual property and the type of vibrant dynamic business that generates both. We shouldn’t worry if criminals wish to steal from us, but we must work to limit their chances of success. So, what can we do to thwart the criminals? And how well are we doing currently?

The second question is easy to answer, and the answer is: not too badly. We may not be winning the war, but we’re not losing either – the "black hole" of the report is really a sort of jurisdictive black hole, and it’s unlikely to swallow the nation’s finances any time soon. That’s not, however, to deny the scale of the problem, and the question of how we solve it is undeniably complicated. The issue is a truly global one, and criminals have more weapons at their disposal than ever before.

Cyber-security professionals refer to the "attack surface" to describe how cyber-criminals access their victims and, in the space of the last ten years, this has changed beyond all recognition. When the internet was primarily a means of accessing information, the avenues through which cyber criminals could reach their victims were limited, and so was the extent of their potential gains. Now, with almost any product or service available online, with a plethora of different social networks, and with smartphones and many different devices connected to the internet, there are few limits to the means criminals can employ to steal from organisations and individuals.

No individual or organisation can hope to stand alone against this threat. Companies that wish to defend themselves have little alternative but to collaborate on their response to cyber-crime. The criminals themselves see the value of such a strategy, and their information-sharing networks are extraordinarily effective. At our subsidiary RSA, we maintain cyber-security watch posts around the world, and from these we see criminals exchanging data on the vulnerabilities that allow them to steal money and intellectual property from organisations and individuals.

This is a sophisticated and agile underground economy which feeds parasitically on legitimate commerce, and which lawful businesses cannot hope to curb without concerted action. However, even recent discourse on the issue has not sufficiently stressed the importance of collaboration. For example, the CBI’s otherwise very sensible response to the Committee’s report struck a false note in its suggestion we should be "fighting crime in private". That would be a lonely and unsuccessful fight, and it’s crucial that British businesses are aware of how numerous, how skilled, and how efficiently collaborative cyber-criminals are. No organisation could hope to combat them alone.

However, with a coherent framework for businesses to share information on cyber threats, businesses are well-placed to beat the cyber threat. Many business leaders may shy away from the idea of engaging with their competitors and peers in industry, but strong precedents have already been set in sectors at high risk of cybercrime. Financial services is one of these and, while companies in the industry are more protective of proprietary information than those in almost any other, the scale of the threat is such that a formal means of sharing intelligence is a necessity. In financial services, the eFraudNetwork cybercrime watch service allows companies worldwide to securely share information about cyber-crime, so that once one attempted theft is thwarted, the perpetrators cannot simply move on to try the same methods at another organisation.

Such a network is very effective in curbing fraud and theft, and the good news is that this kind of information sharing is not complex or expensive, and need not negatively impact on the competitive advantages or information privacy of the organisations involved. It is a model that could easily be replicated in other industries. Much work is already being done to achieve this; indeed, RSA will shortly release a cyber-threat intelligence model, which will propose a global industry standard framework for business-to-business information sharing. Last week’s Committee report implied that a political intervention is possible so, however it chooses to do so, the business community should act while it is still able to shape a response according to its own priorities. After all, if there’s one thing that we know about cyber criminals, it’s that they never stop working to improve the methods they use. As the lawless learn to attack more effectively, so the lawful must learn to defend better – and no one organisation can succeed in doing this alone.

James Petter is vice president and managing director of EMC UK&I

Photograph: Getty Images

James Petter is vice president and managing director of  internet services company EMC UK&I.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser