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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.