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The UK is right to build up its cyber-defences

Serious threats.

Photograph: Getty Images

Last week’s announcement by Philip Hammond that the MoD is to recruit a large number of cyber-security specialists as reservists to tackle serious cyber-attacks, adds a welcome degree of clarity to the statement he made earlier this year, on the future of the armed forces reserves.  One of the Conservative party’s best-known peers, and former cabinet ministers, characterised last week’s announcement as "the most important announcement of the week" – however, the main task of the Joint Cyber Reserve Unit (JCRU) will not be, as he put it "to devise protection for our infrastructure."

The apocalyptic cyber-warfare vision of Hollywood action-thrillers is some distance from the reality, and the threat to our physical infrastructure is less than the threat posed by potential attacks on information infrastructure. The perception that foreign-based hackers could blow up a gas pipeline or poison the water supply is – at least for the moment – quite fanciful. Physical machinery such as power stations, electric substations, and water purification plants can be designed to operate independently of the internet – this makes them considerably easier to defend against to cyber-attacks. 

However, the same cannot be said for the stock-exchange, the bank clearing system, and enterprise payrolls, not to mention the huge slice of the economy which is exclusively online, from internet shopping to vehicle tax renewal.  A cyber-attack on such facilities would not result in the lights going out, but could cause widespread economic chaos.

Of course, in times of conflict, it is not just civilian assets that must be protected, and the JCRU will also be tasked with protecting the military’s digital and data capabilities. These are currently underdeveloped, but are set to form a more important part of the country’s overall defence capability in years to come. I was recently involved in the production of a report by the Royal United Services Institute, which explored the potential for data capture and analysis to boost the effectiveness of military capability.

The potential for such technologies to offer tactical and strategic advantage is huge, particularly in battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance. The UK’s intelligence services already collect many times more data on active military operations than it is currently possible to analyse, and rectifying that problem will call for sophisticated automated analysis. Often this uses multiple devices and networks, but the more resources that are used in analysing data, the more vulnerable the system is to attacks. If such technology is not properly protected, then the advantage it confers can easily be neutralised by a resourceful enemy.

It will be the task of the JCRU to protect both civilian and military assets, and its status as a reserve force could help, rather than hinder it. As General Peter Wall, the chief of the general staff, pointed out earlier this year, much of the cyber-defence expertise that the MoD needs will have to be recruited from the civilian sphere. A reserve force is also likely to be attractive to those who would not consider a normal military career.

Offensive and defensive cyber-security technology is developing so quickly that the MoD cannot rely on creating its own bespoke systems - it will need to work closely with civilian innovators if it is to build solutions capable of defending our assets against known and unknown threats. I have written in these pages before of the necessity for collaboration between security organisations in the fight against cyber-crime –the same goes for cyber-warfare. The JCRU will only be successful if it is able to combine the best of technology with human ingenuity from both the civilian and military worlds.

It serves nobody’s interest to cry wolf on a subject as serious as cyber-war – but that doesn’t mean that the threat is not serious. The consequences of complacency might not be as bad as Hollywood would have us believe, but they are certainly serious enough to warrant a considerable investment in our defences. That’s why the JCRU should be welcomed, as it will facilitate the interplay between civilian creativity, technology and expertise, with military knowledge, insight and experience. If it achieves this, it will form an important defence against attacks on the information infrastructure on which our civilian and our military organisations have increasingly come to rely.