The British government has openly suggested that the U.K is gearing up to bolster computer network defenses by initiating the development of new cyber offensive tools for their arsenal, according to a report in ITProUK.
"We need a toolbox of capabilities and that's what we are currently developing. The circumstances and manner in which we would use them are broadly analogous to what we would do in any other domain," said British armed forces minister Nick Harvey.
The acknowledgement comes on the heels of reports about a soon to be finalized Pentagon cyber strategy which outline the circumstances in which an attack against U.S. computer networks could be considered an act of war and potentially elicit an armed military response.
News of the Pentagon strategy itself closely follows the release of an Obama administration report on international cyber security coordination which provides the strongest indications to date that cyber attacks against a NATO member nation could invoke retaliatory actions under the treaty's mutual defense doctrine.
Amid growing concerns over state-sponsored attacks reportedly emanating from China, Iran, Russia and other nations, western governments have begun to seriously step-up the cyber offensive rhetoric in recent months, with the U.K issuing some of the boldest assertions.
“Future conflict[s] will see cyber operations conducted in parallel with more conventional actions in the sea, land and air operations. Therefore we must plan, train, exercise and operate in a way which integrates our activities in both cyber and physical space. We will grow a cadre of dedicated cyber experts to support our own and allied cyber operations and secure our vital networks,” a British Ministry of Defense spokesperson said.
While publicly announcing key aspects of a security strategy may seem counter-productive to the enhancement of defense capabilities, experts contend that the tough talk is probably meant to act as a strong deterrence factor for would-be attackers.
“The announcement is partly a means of achieving deterrence, namely that the UK is willing to both defend its assets in kind and to possibly strike at others. The risk in this, of course, is if the deterrence is not credibly backed up. I expect this to play out for a few more years both in terms of demonstrating such capabilities against rivals and investments to increase their capabilities,” said Arbor Networks' Jose Nazario.
Other security experts contend that the increased rhetoric is merely an exercise in "security theater", and that any meaningful progress in cyber security initiatives will likely be stymied by the political process and election-geared grandstanding.
“Security and intelligence are difficult and wide-ranging areas, and sooner or later, political expediency will mean that mistakes will be made. Necessary measures will be dropped or skimped on because of economic pressures, inappropriate and/or inadequate measures will attract funding because it’s a way for elected officials to be seen to be doing something. The whole ‘security theatre’ problem is based on the political assumption that it’s better to do something visible but half-baked than to do something effective but invisible,” said ESET UK's David Harley.
Western governments are not the only ones ready to ante-up in the high stakes game of cyber security. Chinese government officials recently acknowledged the existence of a military unit dedicated to cyber warfare activity, according to intelligence sources.
China has reportedly recruited thousands of hackers for a cyber force tasked with infiltrating a multitude of computers to establish a large botnet which can be utilized to conduct denial of service (DoS) campaigns to disrupt targeted websites as well as conducting cyber espionage activity to pilfer sensitive information.
Iran is also reported to be actively recruiting cyber soldiers in a effort to strengthen the nation's cyber defensive and offensive capabilities. The initiative is largely thought to be in response to the Stuxnet virus attacks which caused severe damage to Iran's nuclear enrichment operations, and reportedly set back the nation's nuclear program by as much as several years.
According to Brigadier Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, leader of Iran's Passive Defense Organization, the military is preparing “to fight our enemies with abundant power in cyberspace and Internet warfare.”