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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder