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The UK is prepared for the international cyber threat

The Secretary of State explains how the UK is shoring up its defences, and working with other nations to meet the challenges of the digital age.

In the past three years as Defence Secretary, I’ve been confronted by a swathe of complex challenges. Yet whether the danger comes from state aggressors, rogue states or non-state actors, it’s striking how often cyber is now their weapon of choice. And there’s a very good reason we now regard cyber as a Tier One threat – up there with natural disasters and terror. Virtual attacks have real consequences. We’ve seen Daesh using online tools to recruit followers and spread murderous propaganda. We’ve seen Russia using an army of social media bots to steadily drip-feed fake news and disinformation to the West, poisoning public trust. And North Korea’s fingerprints appear to be on numerous high-profile cyber strikes.

This year alone Parliament has been hacked and the WannaCry virus has shut down NHS operating theatres, as well as affecting more than 200,000 people worldwide. The consequences for the military are equally significant; it has been claimed Russia used malware to track and target Ukrainian artillery which illustrates how cyber can directly impair military capability. While big set-piece attacks are devastating, lower-level activity is costing business billions, undermining democracy and putting us all at risk.

In recent years we’ve seen our cyber adversaries multiply, attracted by the anonymous and ambiguous nature of the medium. It’s no longer the usual suspects; now any loner with a laptop and a grudge can cause chaos. That’s why the UK is taking action. We’re investing £1.9bn to strengthen our cyber security capability. This month we marked the first anniversary of the National Cyber Security Centre – bringing together some of the best cyber security brains from across government and the country. In the past year it has responded to nearly 600 significant incidents requiring a national, coordinated response. Defence is at the forefront of our response which incorporates three key elements.

Firstly, it’s about creating better resilience. We’re making sure our latest fifth-generation kit, from F35 to future frigates, Ajax Armoured Vehicles to drones, is packed with information sensors that can gather millions of bytes of data per second, to detect cyber intrusions and respond appropriately. We’ve also set up the Defence Cyber Partnership Programme ensuring companies with whom we’ve placed defence contracts are properly protected and meeting a host of security standards.

Secondly, we’re recruiting the best and brightest cyber talent. We’ve got cyber reservists from industry and academia putting their high-tech skills at the service of the nation by weeding out network vulnerabilities. We’re also building up a new 21st century Cyber Corps. This team of expert volunteers and captains of industry will advise us how to generate the disruptive capability needed, in everything from big data to autonomy, to keep us ahead in the cyber space race. Cyber is now a core part of our military training. In a few months’ time we will open a dedicated state-of-the-art Defence Cyber School at Shrivenham, bringing together all of our military joint cyber training into one place.

But, as RAF Second World War hero Air Vice-Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson once remarked: “The only proper defence is offence.” Knowing we have the ability to expose cyber attacks and respond, whether in the air, on land, at sea, or in the cyber sphere, will deter our adversaries. Equally, offensive cyber capability gives us the means to maintain our battlefield advantage, delivering more targeted effects, limiting civilian casualties and protecting our own people.

And thirdly, we’re making offensive cyber an essential part of our arsenal, to use it where appropriate and governed by our commitment to international law. Our National Offensive Cyber Programme allows us to integrate cyber into all our military operations, and is being used with great effectiveness to degrade Daesh, not only in Iraq but in Syria too. And we’re not just investing in kit capable of soaking up a wealth of data, but running a multimillion-pound competition to develop machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence too – freeing up our personnel to provide a more co-ordinated and tailored response.

When it comes to cyber deterrence we stand stronger when we stand together, so we’re also working with our allies to develop our collective cyber response. At last year’s Warsaw summit, NATO recognised cyber as a distinctive domain of operations for the first time. Allied nations signed the cyber pledge, committing to enhance their national defences and strengthen their collective capability to resist attack. Simultaneously we need to continue to develop the ability to provide a proportionate response to cyber attacks against NATO allies. Having honed our own innovative national cyber techniques, we’ve become one of the first NATO members to publicly offer offensive cyber support to Alliance operations as and when required.

In 1933 Churchill declared: “Air power may either end war or end civilisation”, knowing air power could be used for good or ill. He made the right choice and in the dark decade that followed, our planes helped liberate our nation and transform our lives for the better. Now, in this new cyber age, we too are determined to make the right choices – boosting our cyber power to make our nation safer and the world more secure.

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Investing in a secure future

Increased training and investment in cyber security infrastructure are essential in the digital age.

It is easy to underestimate how crucial the internet is to our everyday lives. It has become an essential tool in the way we communicate with others and conduct business both at home and abroad. More than 1.6m people work in the digital sector or in digital tech roles in the United Kingdom and the internet continues to provide individuals and businesses with huge opportunities.

However, we know that criminals seek to exploit the many benefits of the internet for their own personal gain, often at great expense to others. The WannaCry ransomware attack, which hit the NHS as well as other organisations, highlights the seriousness of the threat and reinforces the need to properly protect ourselves online.

In the recent Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2017, just under half (46 per cent) of all businesses identified at least one breach or attack in the last year. Although it is difficult to put an exact figure on how much this cost the UK economy, it is likely to be in the billions.

We are also all too aware of attacks by hostile state actors who look to exploit the UK through intellectual property theft, in order to further their own interests and prosperity. We take these attempts to disrupt our national security very seriously.

That is why this the government set up the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which provides cyber security at a national level. In its first year of being operational, the NCSC responded to 590 significant cyber incidents, more than 30 of which were sufficiently serious to require a cross-government response.

It is not just large organisations and our national infrastructure that are targeted by online criminals; individuals also face the daily threat of being scammed in their own homes. It is now the case that British citizens are 20 times more likely to be defrauded at their computer than mugged in the street.

It is a threat we all face. I strongly believe that we – individuals, businesses and the government – must play our own part to mitigate the risk and ensure that the internet is a safe and secure space for everyone. The government has legislated within the Serious Crime Act 2015 to create a new offence that applies where an unauthorised act in relation to a computer results in serious damage to the economy, the environment, national security or human welfare, or a risk of such damage occurring.

Legislating against online criminality goes some way to tackling the problem; however, close collaboration between the government, business and international partners is essential in combating the increasingly sophisticated attacks that the UK faces.

We work closely with the NCSC, which acts as a bridge between industry and government, providing a unified source of advice and the management of cyber-related incidents. It is at the heart of the government’s 2016 National Cyber Security Strategy, which is supported by £1.9bn of transformational investment to 2021.

Our law enforcement agencies across England and Wales also play a vital role in disrupting the activities of cyber criminals and bringing them to justice. They now operate as a single networked resource with the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Regional Cyber Crime Units using shared intelligence and capabilities. The NCA also has a dedicated Dark Web Intelligence Unit which targets those criminals who exploit hidden areas of the internet.

But we also want people to take their own preventative measures, so that they don’t become a target by criminals operating in the cyber space. We are running a series of campaigns and programmes which aim to encourage individuals and businesses to adopt more secure online behaviours.

Cyber Aware works with over 320 public and private sector partner organisations to encourage us all to take simple steps to protect ourselves online including using a strong, separate password for our email accounts and installing the latest software and app updates on our electronic devices.

The NCSC has also recently launched expert guidance on how small businesses can easily avoid common online breaches and attacks. Should organisations seek to improve their cyber security further, they can get certification through the Cyber Essentials Scheme.

To further support the efforts of SMEs in improving their cyber security, regional cyber crime prevention coordinators engage with businesses and members of the public to provide customised cyber security advice based on the latest technical guidance from the NCSC.

We must also look to the future – we now have a whole generation that have grown up immersed in tech. It is hugely important that we harness their talents and put them to good use rather than letting them wander down a path towards criminal online activities.

We must train and engage with the next generation of cyber security experts and is why the NCSC is taking a leading role in promoting a culture where science and technology subjects can flourish within the education system. Their CyberFirst programme identifies and nurtures young talent through a series of summer workshops and competitions. In addition, their CyberUK 2018 programme focuses on encouraging more women to enter into the technology industry, a sector that is largely seen as male-dominated.

There is a great effort across government and law enforcement to pursue online criminals, prevent
those that are headed on a path towards criminal activity, protect the public and prepare for the many threats we face online. We will continue to invest in law enforcement capabilities at a national, regional and local level to ensure agencies have the capacity to deal with the increasing threat from cyber crime.

However, this is not a threat that we can tackle alone. It is everybody’s responsibility, from top to bottom, to follow the guidance provided and increase their awareness of cyber security in order to create a safe space to communicate and conduct business online.