Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/22/csoc_report/

Cyber attacks will 'catastrophically' spook public, warns GCHQ

Cheltenham spies 'cyber arms race'

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Security, 22nd February 2010 12:02 GMT

Exclusive A digital attack against the UK causing even minor damage would have a "catastrophic" effect on public confidence in the government, GCHQ has privately warned Whitehall.

The Cheltenham spy agency's new Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) makes the prediction in a document prepared for Cabinet Office and seen by The Register.

Growing reliance on the internet to deliver public services will "quickly reach a point of no return", meaning "any interruption of broadband access becomes intolerable and will have serious impacts on the the economy and public well being", CSOC says.

"A successful cyber attack against public services would have a catastrophic impact on public confidence in the government, even if the actual damage caused by the attack were minimal," it adds.

The warning forms part of a preliminary "horizon scanning" report produced by the new unit, which is scheduled to begin operations next month. Its job will be to continually monitor internet security, producing intelligence on botnets, denial of service attacks and other digital threats to national security.

CSOC was established by last summer's Cyber Security Strategy. With an initial staff of 19 and funded from GCHQ's budget of hundreds of millions of pounds, it reports to the equally-nascent Office of Cyber Security within the Cabinet Office, which coordinates digital national security policy across Whitehall.

Most cyber attacks are likely to remain difficult to trace to official sources, the report explains, citing as an example the denial of service attacks on Georgia as Russia's army invaded in 2008, which were never reliably linked to the Kremlin. This year GCHQ's close US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA), has been called in to investigate attacks on Google's GMail service apparently from inside China.

"An internationally agreed definition of cyber warfare will remain elusive, with state actors making increasing use of hired criminals and 'hacktivists' to carry out deniable cyber attacks on their behalf," CSOC predicts.

The offical British view casts ongoing talks between the US and Russia - aimed at fostering cooperation between states on internet security and agreeing ground rules - in a pessimistic light.

"States are likely to increasingly see the cyber domain as an area in which to wage war... it is difficult to see international agreement on what acts are and are not acceptable in a cyber war being achieved within five years," CSOC says. "Even if regulation of this kind was to emerge, it is likely that it would make little difference.

"The increasing sophistication of criminal cyber tools and the availability of cheap, fast broadband will mean that states are able to achieve their aims by hiring criminal botnets to carry out DDOS or other attacks on their enemies' infrastructure."

Cyber arms race

Government eavesdroppers also face a secret "cyber arms race" to develop quantum cryptography technology, according to GCHQ.

"In the next 5 to 10 years, states are likely to engage in a cyber arms race for quantum cryptanalysis, which would enable the users to crack any encryption within a very short space of time, and for quantum cryptography, which would prevent secure communications from being intercepted," it said.

Quantum computers would be able to test every possible cipher for a traditionally-encrypted message very quickly. Meanwhile a quantum-encrypted message would be impossible to intercept because just by observing it the eavesdropper would destroy it.

GCHQ - the descendent of the UK's famous World War Two codebreaking effort at Bletchley Park - is responsible for intercepting foreign communications and for trying to ensure government communications are not intercepted. Without directly referring to its own work on quantum cryptography, it said the revolution the technology would spark in both areas remains out of reach.

"It is unlikely that any state actor will have been able to put quantum systems into operation by 2015, although some state actors may have basic quantum computing capabilities by 2020," CSOC says.

The NSA is said to be investing heavily in quantum computing.

The predictions in CSOC's report have served as the basis of a series of classified and unclassified meetings with industry and academics hosted by the Office of Cyber Security in recent weeks. Officials plan to feed the results of the meetings into policy, including whether and how the UK should develop offensive capabilities online. ®