The UK is right to build up its cyber-defences

Serious threats.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

James Petter is the Vice President & Managing Director of EMC, UK & Ireland

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad