UK to launch specialist cyber force able to target terror groups

GCHQ and Ministry of Defence to roll out national task force of hackers after months of delay

A specialist cyber force of hackers who can target hostile states and terror groups is due to be launched later in the spring, after many months of delays and turf wars between the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ.

The National Cyber Force – containing an estimated 500 specialists – has been in the works for two years but sources said that after months of wrangling over the details, the specialist unit was close to being formally announced.

Britain is keen to be seen as a “cyber power” able to disrupt against enemy states, targeting satellite, mobile and computer networks as well as trying to take down communications networks used by terror groups.

The National Cyber Force is a joint initiative between the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ, and insiders said it would consolidate some existing capabilities as well as develop new ones.

However, officials are coy on details, arguing that much of what the UK’s offensive hackers could do should remain classified. Nor is the identity of its leader expected to be publicly disclosed, although previous speculation that it would be a woman is understood to be inaccurate.

Experts argue that the lack of clarity makes it difficult to discuss the appropriate limits of cyber warfare in a democracy and what sort of attacks or disruptive measures can be considered legitimate, particularly if there is a strong military dimension to its work.

James Sullivan, the head of cyber research at defence thinktank Rusi, said: “There has been limited public debate on the purpose and ethics of offensive cyber, the circumstances under which it might be used, and the kinds of effects that might and might not be acceptable.”

Avowed examples of British hacking are rare. Jeremy Fleming, GCHQ’s director, boasted in 2018 of conducting “a major offensive cyber campaign” against Isis, which he said “had significant success in suppressing [its] propaganda, hindered their ability to coordinate attacks, and protected coalition forces on the battlefield”.

The spy chief claimed that during 2017, the terror group had “found it almost impossible to spread their hate online, to use their normal channels to spread their rhetoric, or trust their own publications” in a speech given at Nato in Brussels.

Britain’s delayed efforts come on the heels of the US, which has been gradually acknowledging an expanded offensive cyber capability. Last summer, John Bolton, the then US national security adviser, acknowledged that Washington was broadening its operations after Donald Trump relaxed restrictions.

The US also rarely acknowledges what its hackers do, although in one operation known as Synthetic Theology, the US Cyber Command jammed servers belonging to the Russian Internet Research Agency, in an apparent attempt to prevent Kremlin interference in the 2018 US mid-term elections.

Fresh discussions about Britain’s offensive hacking capability come a day after Boris Johnson unveiled an integrated review of the UK’s foreign and defence policy, aimed at examining spending across all of the country’s UK security agencies over the next five years.

But the last National Security review, in 2015, promised to “provide the armed forces with advanced offensive cyber capabilities”, although the final phase of that implementation has dragged on so long that it crossed over into the next review, which is due to complete in the autumn.

No 10 has indicated that the review would not necessarily be cost-neutral, meaning that defence spending could increase beyond its existing level of 2% of GDP if an appropriate justification can be found. One of the issues it will address is the future balance of spending between conventional and cyber warfare.

From the Guardian

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