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Source: Metro

Posted on November 4, 2010

The days of the foot soldier are numbered after a government announcement that computer hackers waging battles from their keyboards pose the greatest threat to national security.

That's right folks; visions of Judgement Day or cyborgs sent back from the future to change the past are being replaced by the likes of computer geek Boris Grishenko from the James Bond movie GoldenEye.

In all seriousness, a cyber war using computer viruses as weapons, launched by a foreign state trying to shut down Britain's communication and power networks, has become a clear and present danger.

Terry Pattar, from leading defence analyst Jane's Strategic Advisory Services, says: 'The easiest way to categorise cyber threats is in three ways: cyber crime - aimed at obtaining financial information from individuals or organisations; cyber espionage - aimed at obtaining information, usually from large organisations, particularly government departments; cyber warfare - this covers state-directed or sponsored large-scale cyber attacks against another country.'

Pattar says our main threat comes from organised cyber criminals attempting to obtain sensitive information from companies or government departments. However, he adds: 'The pros are that hackers can remain relatively anonymous as it is very time consuming to find out who is behind a particular attack. So as a form of warfare it could allow a country to cause damage to an adversary without being discovered.'

Pattar says cyber warfare is also relatively cheap to launch, as once the viruses are created attacks can be automated.

'But,' he says, 'They are potentially expensive to defend against because it requires continual vigilance from a combination of computer security companies, government agencies and international organisations such as Nato.' Currently, Britain is defended by a small team in the Office of Cyber Security at the Government Communications Headquarters near Cheltenham.

GCHQ director Iain Lobban has warned around 1,000 cyber attacks are detected each month on government networks, sent by anyone from pranksters to alleged terrorists.

Funding of £650million was detailed in the recent Strategic Defence Review and aims to tighten our defences with the announcement of a National Cyber Security Programme. Meanwhile, alleged attacks have already taken place.

In 2007, Russia allegedly used cyber war tactics against neighbouring Estonia to disrupt government networks by overloading them with emails.

And earlier this year, a computer worm called Stuxnet is reported to have damaged the computer network of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. The source of the attack is still unknown. Pattar says: 'Stuxnet was introduced into the plant via infected USB sticks, and was possibly brought in unknowingly via a contractor.'

Paul Cronin, technical director of IT risk management firm Pentura, believes a state was behind the Stuxnet attack.

He says: 'These worms appear to be written by a government with a specific target. I certainly believe this is only the beginning from these types of attacks and we will see many more arising in the future.

'The individuals creating the latest generation of viruses are highly skilled organised “teams” with specific goals and big budgets to spend developing exploits and attacks.'

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