Security chief warns of global cyberthreat

UK under attack, agrees GCHQ head Lobban

Once hailed as an economic saviour, the Internet is now in danger of becoming a threat to the future prosperity of the UK and its allies, the head of UK security agency GCHQ Iain Lobban has said in a rare speech.

Another speech, another dire warning about the economic, social and political threats being posed by the rise of cybercrime, but Government Communications Headquarters chief Lobban did offer more detail on the daily threats battled by his agency.

GCHQ detects 20,000 malicious emails discovered inside government systems each month, 1,000 of which have been deliberately targeted to its departments, he said.

Intellectual property, both commercial and military is being stolen on a "massive scale", citizens are now being attacked successfully for economic gain, and critical infrastructure is under threat. Worse still, in Lobban's assessment, current security technology and policies is not up to the job of stemming this tide and perhaps never will be in their current form.

"Cyberspace is contested every day, every hour, every minute, very second," said Lobban.

The net effect is that some e-government projects built around putting a host of citizen transactions online might have to be rethought and security infrastructure redesigned.

"'Patch and pray' will not be enough. At the national level, getting the rest of Cyber - the more difficult 20 percent - right will involve new technology, new partnerships, and investment in the right people," he said.

The speech comes only days before Foreign Secretary William Hague will set out the government plans to secure cyberspace. The EU is also planning to hold a 27-nation cybersecurity exercise in the first week of November, the first of what will likely become regular events for modelling attack-defence models.

Lobban's speech tells the world nothing it couldn't have worked out from previous high-level pronouncements, and in some ways it downplays the daily threat to government security.

That idea that UK departments face only 1,000 targeted emails per month is on the low side of some estimates, but only includes known attacks of course. It's also probable that the UK is better defended than most.

GCHQ has a massive reputation across the globe for its elite intelligence operations, not least for the invention of public key encryption by three of its emploees years before the more famous US Stanford University trio of Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman were incorrectly credited with the idea. Note to history: Ellis, Cocks and Wiliamson got there first.

Lobban also talks of partnerships between different parts of the technology chain, from suppliers to universities, suppliers and national governments. This is easier said than done and doesn't address the structural weaknesses that afflict the system such as the obsolete PC security architecture that makes building large criminal botnets almost a trivial exercise, for instance.

The free market leapt on the public sector Internet and web and turned it into today's epoch-defining system but it hasn't thus far defended it very well. Security has been an afterthought, a matter of personal choice for individuals and companies. The future might not be as laissez faire.

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John E Dunn

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