Senior representatives from more than 90 governments met in Seoul recently to discuss cyber-space, including cyber-security and cyber-crime. It was the third in a series of international conferences that has followed a push from the UK government to bring a more international perspective to discussions about how to keep cyber-space open while addressing threats.
Cyber-crime does not operate in a world confined by national borders so an international response is our only option. We need to cooperate to protect devices and information infrastructures from malicious entities seeking to steal secrets, deny access to critical services and exploit our identities to commit crimes.
There is much work to be done. Weaknesses in infrastructures, policy and operations leave us vulnerable and threats to businesses and individuals are frequent and damaging. For example, a sophisticated malicious software recently infected a PC at a small British bakery , then managed to bypass all of the business’s online banking security software and steal £20,000. There is no end to the news of malware, viruses and spam that affect online accounts and home computers.
Recent research  indicates that four in five of the UK’s largest quoted companies are unprepared for cyber attacks. The widely reported threats to systems within finance and banking are an uneasy reminder of our vulnerability – and a key priority of the Bank of England and other financial regulators. Even those companies that you might expect to see outsmarting cyber-criminals are not immune. Just a few weeks ago software company Adobe admitted that its system had been hacked and that data from nearly 3 million customers had been stolen. Now there are reports  of ransomware attacks across companies in East London’s hi-tech cluster of businesses.
Currently, too many decisions relating to cyber-security rely on inadequate evidence, inconsistent data, deficient reporting and varying rules across networks and systems. This inconsistency on data is apparent in UK government. Two years ago the UK Cabinet Office published a study  by Detica, which estimated that cyber-crime costs the UK economy £27bn per year. It gave a breakdown by business sector and type of crime. This type of data is critical for governments, businesses and technology companies to plan appropriate security responses. However, a 2012 study  undertaken by Professor Ross Anderson and colleagues for the Ministry of Defence calculated that a more realistic estimate would be closer to £12bn, distributed in significantly different ways to the Detica claims. This would suggest a different pattern of appropriate responses.
Defence beyond borders
A report to which I contributed, Now for the Long Term  calls for the creation of an information exchange - CyberEx - to start tackling these issues. It could be funded by governments and businesses with an interest in collecting and analysing data on cyber-attacks to inform their own decisions about cyber-security. Each could share their own information and coordinate with others on responses to international threats. CyberEx could identify weaknesses in the global system, flag up suspicious Internet traffic and malicious software and help countries and businesses develop technical standards for their cyber-security efforts.
It could seek to minimise common vulnerabilities that enable the theft of sensitive information and the distribution of spam through systems, and work closely with international and domestic agencies to prevent common system attacks. The platform could also provide a useful mechanism for stakeholders to work together on responses to collective concerns, such as privacy protection. By providing an accessible, open platform for information exchange, CyberEx could help governments, businesses and individuals to better understand common threat patterns, identify preventative measures and minimise future attacks.
But you are only as strong as your weakest link, so CyberEx would also need to help developing countries improve their cyber infrastructure. For example, Professor Anderson’s MoD study concluded that significant numbers of “stranded traveller” scams and Advance Fee Frauds originate in West Africa, particularly Nigeria.
We are at the start of conversations with interested parties on the potential for CyberEx, so the details of how and where the exchange would be hosted are still to be worked out. The report’s recommendation is a starting point but it is an important one. It could move us closer to using an exchange platform to counter common but high-risk cyber threats. It is a conversation that must continue if we are to meet the challenges posed by increased societal dependence on information infrastructures.
Ian Brown receives funding from the UK Research Councils (currently EPSRC), the European Commission, and BT. He is on the advisory councils of the Open Rights Group, Privacy International and the Foundation for Information Policy Research.