A committee of MPs has told the government to take the threats – and opportunities – of military action in ‘cyber space’ more seriously.
After speaking to various experts and stakeholders, the Defence Select Committee concluded that the cyber attacks could gravely impact the UK’s military operations.
“The evidence we received leaves us concerned that with the Armed Forces now so dependent on information and communications technology, should such systems suffer a sustained cyber attack, their ability to operate could be fatally compromised,” the committee said in its report.
The report quotes evidence from security software vendor Symantec laying out the possible dangers. These include intercepting intelligence, compromising Command and Control Systems, and even sabotaging planes and ships.
“Moreover, the increased utilisation of robotic devices such as drones, battlefield robots and UAVs over the battlefield has numerous advantages, but also creates a new type of information security challenge that is not yet fully understood, studied or realised,” Symantec said.
The MPs concluded that simply installing cyber defences is not enough, and called on the government to outline contingency plans for the event a cyber attack.
The report also said that the Armed Force’s technology suppliers should improve their own security capabilities. “Having got our own house in reasonable order, we are now starting to work particularly with our key suppliers to help them raise their game in this space,” the Ministry of Defence’s CIO John Taylor had told the committee.
MPs discussed the opportunities for the UK to develop its own cyber ‘tools’ (read ‘weapons’) to defend its national interests. The committee heard that building cutting edge cyber weapons is difficult, with experts pointing to the sophistication of the Stuxnet worm.
“If you really want to knock out the enemy’s air defence system [for example], you are going to have to design something very specifically for that purpose,” Professor Sir David Omand, a former civil servant and now security academic, told the investigation.
It also heard that the change of pace in cyber war makes research and development costly but essential. “It is as if a government operational analyst has been sent to observe the effects in battle of the flintlock musket, only to discover upon arrival that the Maxim gun has been invented,” Professor Paul Cornish of international relations advisory Chatham House told MPs.
In conclusion, the committee called on the government to treat cyber war with greater rigour.
“The cyber threat is, like some other emerging threats, one which has the capacity to evolve with almost unimaginable speed and with serious consequences for the nation’s security,” it said. “The government needs to put in place – as it has not yet done – mechanisms, people, education, skills, thinking and policies which take into account both the opportunities and the vulnerabilities which cyber present.