New UK Cyber Force Targets Terror Groups

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  after months of wrangling over the details, the specialist unit was close to being formally announced.

The American assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has added urgency to the progress of the specialist unit, amid risks of a cyber conflict that could affect the UK.

Therefore, the UK 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.

Much of what the UK’s offensive hackers could do should remain classified and the identity of its leader is not expected to be publicly disclosed, although previous speculation that it would be a woman is understood to be inaccurate. 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 think-tank 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, said that GCHQ conductied “a major offensive cyber campaign” against Isis, which he said “had significant success in suppressing propaganda, hindered their ability to coordinate attacks, and protected coalition forces on the battlefield”. 

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, then US national security adviser, acknowledged that Washington was broadening its operations after President 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.

A government spokesperson said the MoD and GCHQ “have a long and proud history of working together in the national interest and continue to tackle the real threats that the UK faces from a range of hostile actors”.

Around £76m is due to be invested in the force in the first year, with command and control shared between the MoD and the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. Recruitment is projected to take place from the armed forces and intelligence services, as well as academia and the private sector.

Silicon:     Guardian:        Independent:  

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