Focus On Cyber Defence Rather Than Cyber Attack – Former NCSC Head

‘Don’t weaponise the net’. Former head of UK’s NCSC urges governments to focus on cyber defence than cyber offensive capabilities

Ciaran Martin, the former boss of the UK’s cyber guardian, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), has urged government restraint over its cyber offensive capabilities.

In cyber-space Martin reportedly warned that a strong defence should take precedence over arming ourselves with new weapons.

It comes after a report from committee of MPs in July warned that Russia has been conducting a long-running cyber and interference campaign against the UK, and the Government is still playing catch up.

Former NCSC chief Ciaran Martin. Image credit: UK government

Defence best

That report from the committee of MPs that oversee the work of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, also warned that “Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets.”

It came just after the NCSC had warned that Russia’s APT29 (also known as Cozy Bear) had been targetting Covid-19 vaccine researchers.

In a lecture to the Strand Group, part of King’s College, which was reported on by the BBC, Martin made clear that cyber defence should be the priority.

Martin added that we “weaponise” and “militarise the internet at our peril.”

Martin reportedly insisted that he was not a digital pacifist, but he urged restraint.

“The case for cyber-restraint is a hard-headed one,” he was quoted by the BBC as saying in the lecture. “A more secure digital environment is the best guarantor of safety and security for Western countries in the digital age.”

The NCSC began operations in October 2016, and it acts as the front-line base for providing government organisations and UK-based businesses with advice on how to defend against cyber threats.

Martin was in charge of GCHQ’s NCSC since it was founded, but only stepped down in September.

The BBC said his comments come as the UK government is carrying out a defence and security review, which is expected to boost the nation’s cyber-capabilities.

Level of threat

According to the BBC, Martin in his lecture outlined a scale of cyber attacks, as talk of cyber-attacks often fail to differentiate between different types.

Martin reportedly outlined a five-tier structure using the acronym Hacks, rising in level of seriousness:

  • Hacking an opponent to prevent them acting
  • Adversarial infrastructure destruction, targeting their cyber-capabilities
  • Counter-influencing by promoting information or pre-positioning cyber-weapons
  • Kinetic attack to disrupt a target
  • Systems-wide attack, effectively war

Martin reportedly warned that the danger comes if Western nations use the higher-end capabilities.

“What would we think if we turned on the TV and on the news was chaos across corporate Asia, for sake of argument, because a Western operation had gone viral?” Martin reportedly asked.

Martin also warned about the danger of cyber-weapons being used against its creators.

The case of a US cyber weapon being stolen, and then repurposed by North Korean hackers, who used it to unleash the WannaCry virus, was cited.

It spread around the world, hitting the UK’s NHS among others, in 2017.

“It is irresponsible for governments to plan on the basis that they can develop and store cyber-capabilities on the assumption that they will never leak or be stolen,” Martin said.

But the greatest danger, he argued, is Western countries’ dependence on the net.

“Our societies will never be the winners from insecure technology and an unsafe internet,” he reportedly said. Therefore, we must be unambiguously in favour of safer technology.”

Martin also called for more openness when it came to disclosing cyber-operations, especially since most currently focus on crime, terrorism and propaganda.

And he said national security officials must talk to civilian technologists to avoid there being two separate conversations without crossover.

UK capabilities

The UK is known to have build up its cyber offensive capabilities over the past decade.

In 2018 the UK admitted that it had conducted a major offensive cyber-campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group.

It came after an official report from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) in December 2017 revealed that the UK has more than doubled the number of its offensive cyber-capabilities in recent years.

The UK has also been steadily increasing its cyber funding.

Between 2011 and 2016, the Government had allocated £860m to the National Cyber Security Programme, and for the five years from 2016 to 2021, the Government significantly increased funding and allocated £1.9bn for the new National Cyber Security Strategy.

It is worth noting that allies such as the United States have said back in 2011 that it reserves the right to retaliate with military force against a cyber attack from a hostile state.