UK Investing Heavily in Cyber Offensive Capabilities

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

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Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, asserts that the UK is spending the lion;s share of the nation's cyber security budget on the development of cyber offensive capabilities, leaving little for cyber defense.

"The spooks - GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] - are getting 90 per cent of this new £650m for cyber security [they are responsible for cyber attacks]. The rest, about £65m, is going to the police," said Anderson in an interview with Computing.

Western governments are not the only ones ready to ante-up in the high stakes game of cyber security. Chinese government officials earlier this year 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.

The escalation of tensions in cyberspace have created an inherent conflict between efforts to boost cyber defenses while simultaneously developing great cyber offensive capabilities, Anderson says.

"Like the US, the UK has unfortunately got the government's offensive and defensive arms linked together. CESG [Communications-Electronic Security Group], which is supposedly defending the core functions of government against for example cyber espionage by the Chinese, is a small subsidiary of GCHQ whose job is exploiting those sources abroad. This mixed mission is very bad policy, because it means defensive interests are always less important than an offensive approach," Anderson warns.

Anderson believes that the focus on cyber offensive capabilities means that defense is being sacrificed in order to maintain superiority against competing nations, and that the incentive is to utilize vulnerabilities and exploits aggressively, while defending against them has taken a back seat.

"Suppose you're a scientist at Cheltenham and you come up with a new exploit of Windows. Are you going to tell Microsoft, get it patched and protect 60 million Brits? Or are you going to keep quiet about it so you can exploit 1.2 billion Chinese and 1 billion Indians, for example? Because of the way incentives work within organisations, you always find the offensive mission dominating the defensive mission, even when that is to the detriment of national interests," said Anderson.

Last spring, the British government 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.

Amid growing concerns over state-sponsored attacks emanating from China, Iran, Russia and other nations, western governments have begun to seriously step-up the cyber offensive rhetoric, 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.

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