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Top general warns of cyberspy menace to UK biz

Stealing secrets is costing Brits billions

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A senior general has said that cyberattacks represent the biggest threat to national security, warning that British firms routinely lose commercially sensitive information to overseas rivals as the result of hacking.

Major General Jonathan Shaw, head of the Ministry of Defence’s cybersecurity programme, claims that hacking cost the UK economy £27bn. An MoD spokesman helpfully explained that the figure comes from a report by Detica, commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published back in February.

This report guesstimated that businesses lost £21bn to hackers, while UK citizens were left £3.1bn out of pocket and the government lost £2.2bn. Around a third of the £21bn cost to business was due to industrial espionage, such as stealing designs or commercial secrets. Around £1bn was lost through theft of customer data. The hardest-hit sectors were pharmaceuticals, biotech, electronics, IT and chemicals.

Reliable figures on cybercrime are notoriously hard to come by, and what figures there are frequently get used by vendors to push security sales or to persuade politicians to invest more in cybersecurity. The government earmarked an extra £650m for improving cyberdefences. Maj Gen Shaw seems to be arguing not for more money but rather for a greater focus on credible threats rather than movie plot scenarios, such as hackers taking down power grids.

"The biggest threat to this country by cyber is not military, it is economic," said Maj Gen Shaw, a veteran of the Falklands War and Iraq, told The Daily Telegraph.

"The cyberthreat could affect anyone, and we all need to take measures to protect ourselves against the threat it poses."

An unnamed Warrington firm designed a "revolutionary blade for wind turbines [but] went bust after hackers stole the blueprint and produced a cheaper version", according to Maj Gen Shaw.

"If the moment you come up with a brilliant new idea, it gets nicked by the Chinese then you can end up with your company going bust," he said.

Maj Gen Shaw emphasised improving basic security defences at corporate level, such as improved password security and patching, in order to make life more difficult for foreign cyberspies. He avoided mentioning any offensive capability the UK might be developing.

Christophe Bianco, general manager, EMEA at Qualys, backed the general's call for improved "cyberhygiene".

"In the last 18 months, we’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of security breaches hitting companies, with many pointing fingers at competitors and foreign governments," Bianco said. "Many of these are being dubbed as Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), implying that they are very technical, sophisticated threats for which organisations are unable to equip themselves against.

"In fact, a large percentage of these attacks could have been prevented by taking simple measures as part of a proactive security strategy, referred to in the industry as having 'good software hygiene' – which Maj Gen Jonathan Shaw refers to. It’s now imperative that a company, no matter its size, industry or location, put into place robust security measures to protect their expertise and data." ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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