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Source: The Guardian

Posted on November 16, 2009

Last weekend US television viewers were treated to a CBS 60 Minutes special on cyber attacks that presented a doomsday scenario familiar to anyone who has seen Die Hard 4.0: an enemy of the state gains control over national computer networks, plunging citizens into cold and darkness and starving them of food and water. They hold the country to ransom by downloading the entire financial and intelligence records of a highly wired modern country, and remotely manipulate security forces unable to prevent subsequent breakdowns in social order.

CBS maintained that massive blackouts in Brazil in 2007 were the work of hackers. Two days after the programme, the lights went out again in Brazil, and conspiratorial tongues began to wag. While there is no proof that hackers were involved then or now - trees and "sooty insulators" are far more likely to have been responsible - this is the kind of extreme outcome keeping cybersecurity planners tense on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK, large-scale cyber attacks could affect the networks that provide power, water and food, disrupt emergency services and communications, and hit the financial system. One can imagine the chaos caused if the ATM network stopped dispensing cash, or if business email systems failed, or if domestic gas supplies dried up. What really keeps security bosses awake at night is the "cascading failure" of multiple systems: as one fails, so does the next, and the next.

The list of potential aggressors is long too: states, terrorists, hackers, criminals, the curious and the insane. Their strategic intentions might be quite different but all would rely on exploiting vulnerabilities in computer systems to disrupt and degrade everyday life so badly that the recent postal strikes would be a minor blip by comparison.

Apocalyptic visions of "cybergeddon" or a "digital 9/11" are overblown but there is little doubt that the digital networks on which British innovation and economic growth have relied over the last decade are as much an achilles heel as they are its foundation.

The challenge to government is how to harness the skills and capabilities of a wide range of stakeholders to defend against cyber attacks: military, intelligence, law enforcement, industry, privacy advocates, lawyers, civil servants, and you and me, the average and largely pacific internet-using public.

Labour's June 2009 cybersecurity strategy outlined its aspirations for a collective approach to ensuring security of critical information systems. An office of cybersecurity is being set up to co-ordinate this national strategy. GCHQ will host acomputer security operations centre to forewarn government and business about the threat environment. Public-private investment has built the new 30m Centre for Secure Information Technologies in Belfast. Even the House of Lords is holding an inquiry - into a pan-European policy on protecting member states against large-scale cyber attacks. It is too early to assess the impact of these initiatives but they indicate the concern with which cybersecurity wonks regard the problem.

There are many obstacles. Industry is the majority owner and operator of infrastructure but is insufficiently incentivised to engage in activities they feel might affect their bottom lines. Our experience of domestic counterterrorism illustrates we have yet to determine how to balance civil liberties and security. Governments feel the military should have a role in protecting cyberspace but do not yet understand exactly what that role should be, nor how they should respond to belligerent acts. Governments have also yet to square the necessity to share information with the risks posed by exposing vulnerabilities.

In the US cybersecurity has been a buzzword in the Beltway for some time but this issue has yet to spark serious public debate in the UK. At present we simply do not know how well-prepared the UK is to withstand a concerted cyber attack, nor how resilient our critical infrastructures are if large chunks of computer network go offline. We may get some clues shortly, as the multi-agency Operation White Noise simulates the total loss of our mobile and fixed-line telephone networks. Such red-team exercises, and broad consultation, will better inform the next strategic defence reviewand the cybersecurity policies that will be a focus for whichever party wins the spring election.

The UK is significantly more secure than most countries but there are many chinks in the national armour that need addressing before we can say with any certainty that cyber attacks can be both repulsed and recovered from. A major first step should be an open and honest public debate, shorn of hyperbole and panic-mongering, and aimed, ultimately, at ensuring a safe and productive cyberspace for all.

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