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UK.gov decides best form of cyber defence is attack

Playing the great game online

UK cyber security spooks will soon have the ability to undertake proactive missions online rather than just playing defense, under the revamped National Security Strategy published today.

For the first time, the National Security Strategy includes a public cyber security strategy.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "Just as in the 19th century we had to secure the seas for our national safety and prosperity, and the 20th century we had to secure the air, in the 21st century we also have to secure our position in cyber space in order to give people and businesses the confidence they need to operate safely there."

The idea is to create a central, strategic body, the Office of Cyber Security, within the Cabinet Office to run strategy and liaise with industry. A separate office, Cyber Security Operations Centre, based at GCHQ in Cheltenham will run actual operations, which will include offensive rather than just defensive operations. The two groups will get new funding from existing intelligence sources.

OCS will initially employ 16 to 20 people and aim to improve UK skills, improve co-operation with industry and, in the longer term, look at international law and ethics.

CSOC will have 20 to 25 staff to start with and its initial aim is to get a better idea of the kind of attacks the UK is likely to face. But in the medium term they will be looking at what the UK can do to counter such attacks.

This group will function in a similar way to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre - it will be made up of people from different government areas such as police, MI5 and the MoD.

The Register was invited to a briefing to discuss this with several people we can only refer to as "senior Whitehall officials". What follows comes from these individuals.

Firstly they were keen to stress the reality of these threats, and that they mainly come not from terrorists but from organised crime.

The threat from terrorists was described as "one of intent, not action - there is no imminent threat to our national infrastructure."

The other point made was that this was not about esoteric online-only attacks - 90 per cent of UK high street transactions are online in some sense. Worldwide online fraud is estimated at £53bn. Logistics, utilities and communications all depend on the internet to varying degrees.

Asked how easy it would be for the civil service to attract the highly paid staff it needs to carry out the new strategy we were told: "We already have good contacts with banks and telecoms but need to take this wider - our information is useful for business too." We were also told that the recession was making public sector recruitment easier, and that several of the organisations involved are already seeing better applicants.

As for the change in strategy from a purely defensive mode, we were told: "We need to keep the pressure on individuals to be careful online but if criminals keep attacking, or trying to attack, it is not cost effective to only defend - you have to take action. There is a fine balance here, we don't want to engage in cyber war but we can't remain a target for criminals to take a pop at." But other actions like prosecuting, or asking other countries to prosecute, remain an option.

We were told that a denial of service attack would be "a particularly big hammer... we need graduated responses because the difficulty is identifying the attacker and avoiding collateral damage".

Officials were dismissive of claims that a "Cyber Czar" was being appointed. They said there will be a director, but the last thing this needs is a big ego or name getting in the way of cross-department co-operation.

The full report will be available on the Cabinet Office website. ®

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