Dark clouds ahead: GCHQ chief executive asks for vigilance

Protecting the United Kingdom from cyber-attacks now carries as much importance as fighting physical terrorism, according to the chief executive of intelligence agency GCHQ.

Following a deluge of major cyber-attacks affecting both the NHS and the UK parliament, Jeremy Fleming, said the agency he runs is now receiving extra funding to make it a “cyber-organisation” as much as an intelligence and counter-terrorism one which fights kinetic threats.

The announcement from Fleming in the Daily Telegraph follows a report from the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) which says it had responded to 590 “significant attacks” in its first year, with a total of 1,313 incidents reported in total to the organisation.

30 of those incidents had been deemed serious enough to require “cross-government response”, such as the WannaCry ransomware attack which affected the NHS to an extent where operations had to be delayed. The NCSC is alleged to have worked closely with several other bodies to curb the effects of the attack.

Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the NCSC, said in a statement that the organisation was “incredibly proud” of what it has achieved in the first year. But added, “The threat remains very real and growing – further attacks will happen and there is much more for us to do to make the UK the safest place in the world to live and do business online.”

Fleming says that we can expect more attacks as the UK’s adversaries are quick to adapt their tools, tactics and procedures to do the UK harm. It is for this reason that he has used used the announcement to encourage vigilance from citizens around the country.

He said, “If GCHQ is to continue to help keep the country safe, then protecting the digital homeland – keeping our citizens safe and free online – must become and remain as much part of our mission as our global intelligence reach and round-the-clock efforts against terrorism.”

The advice seems apt: as several studies from major security companies find that “human error” contributes to nearly all cyber-incidents. An organisation could have all the technology in the world, but if an employee clicked a malicious link or opened a malware-filled attachment, it could have grave consequences.

The announcement comes as John Noble, director of network management at the UK’s NCSC, called for industry cooperation and incident reporting amongst operators of SCADA and ICS systems in an effort to raise awareness and adoption of key security practices.

They are not yet widespread, but attacks on such systems which are used by power stations, water treatment plants and manufacturing plants all around the world, offer another threat vector for anyone wishing to do harm to the UK.

Overall, it’s positive that the NCSC and GCHQ are becoming increasingly more vocal about their activities. Having a renowned security organisation comment on such issues lends gravitas to the idea that UK citizens should be paying more of attention to such threats, both personally and in their working life.