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23 November 2021

People are the first line of defence against hackers

Cyber vigilance is a necessity in today’s digital climate, says the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure.

By Julia Lopez MP

The past 18 months have sped up the adoption of new technology to a pace we’ve never seen before. Video calls have replaced phone calls, we’re using new apps and software to help us work, learn and socialise, and shopping online has become a regular habit for many.

Technology has also transformed the way we do business. I’ve seen first-hand how cutting-edge firms are using technology to improve the way they do things, not just in allowing staff to work from home but also to serve their customers more efficiently and in a smarter way – whether it’s a popular restaurant using a food delivery app or a local butchers processing orders online.

Although technology brings great benefits, we must pay even more attention to the cyber security that protects the data flowing around our digital infrastructure. Data released in March this year highlighted that two in five businesses and a quarter of charities reported cyber security breaches over the previous 12 months. Where a breach has resulted in a loss of data or assets, the average cost of a cyber attack on a business is £8,460 – rising to £13,400 for medium and large businesses.

Criminals have always attempted to con people by capitalising on what’s in the news or on people’s minds. Recently, we’ve seen scams related to the Euros football tournament, cryptocurrencies and even summer holidays.

Individuals and businesses need to make sure they have the digital skills to operate in this rapidly changing world. As well as being able to use technology, it’s crucial we know how to do so securely, to protect our money and data.

As a parent I know the importance of helping young people get the digital skills they need to be safe online. It’s why the government has made sure the school curriculum provides important basic knowledge in areas such as digital literacy and online safety, which help children avoid harmful content, protect their privacy and recognise misinformation and disinformation.

Likewise, the government’s popular CyberFirst programme aims to help 11 to 17-year-olds develop online safety skills and encourages them to pursue a career in cyber security. Improving the digital skills of young people not only provides the building blocks for good, secure digital citizenship, but also sets out a pathway for future careers in exciting, well-paid areas such as artificial intelligence and software engineering.

Digital business is booming; according to Growth Intelligence, 85,000 businesses launched online stores or joined online marketplaces in the four months from April 2020 alone. The government’s Cyber Aware campaign encourages people and small businesses to improve their cyber security by taking a few important actions, such as setting stronger passwords and switching on two-factor authentication. We’re also working with the banking and finance sector on a national campaign to tackle fraud called Take Five, which offers people advice to prevent online and phone scams.

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Improving the nation’s digital know-how is important but can only take us so far; we are working hard to stop online fraudsters. Last year, the government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) launched a Suspicious Email Reporting Service (Sers) allowing the public to flag suspected scams. Anyone can play their part by simply forwarding suspicious emails to the NCSC, and the experts will step into action. Sers has now received more than 7.7 million reports, helping the NCSC remove more than 64,000 scams and 119,000 malicious websites up to the end of September 2021.

There has also been a surge in ransomware over the past year. These lock an organisation’s IT systems, putting them out of use until a ransom payment is made. But there is help at hand and the government has produced advice for firms – an excellent first step is to follow this guidance and back up critical business data. Businesses with no defences make easy targets, so I urge bosses and security teams to act.

For company owners and managers, knowing how to protect your business is crucial. The government’s Cyber Essentials scheme offers small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) a cost-effective way to get basic measures in place to prevent most cyber attacks.

Employees can help too. The government’s free, easy-to-use online training package for staff explains the importance of cyber security, how to defend against email phishing attacks and how to secure devices at work. There’s even a Board Toolkit to help management ensure they protect their most valuable digital assets.

Securing prosperity and competitiveness in the digital age is at the heart of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, and we want to secure our status as a science and tech superpower by 2030.

The UK’s cyber industry is one of this country’s success stories and is helping us achieve that goal, with investors looking to capitalise on our skills, ingenuity and business environment. Despite the pandemic, it attracted record investment last year and is now worth an estimated £8.9bn. UK businesses such as Darktrace, Clearswift and Sophos are helping protect companies at home and abroad.

While our entrepreneurs in this space surge ahead, everyone needs to have essential cyber skills. Let’s all take steps to protect ourselves online so we can seize the opportunities technology brings and boost the UK’s prosperity.

This article originally appeared in our print policy report on cyber security, published on 19 November 2021.