US Spy Chiefs Look For UK Guidance On Cybersecurity

American spymasters are concerned over the vulnerability of US companies to cyberattack and are turning to the UK for guidance on how to boost protection in the face of a growing threat from hostile state hackers.

A US intelligence official told the Financial Times that US intelligence is braced for the cyber threat to “get worse”, likening the US to a city at the bottom of a dam that is fast developing cracks. 

“Something horrible has to happen to fix it,” said Rick Ledgett, former deputy director of the NSA who left the agency last year after four decades. “The US should follow the UK model.”

One possible solution being weighed by US intelligence officials is to replicate the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, the public-facing division of Britain’s digital eavesdropping agency GCHQ.

Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the NSA and US Cyber Command, which tackle cyber defence and offence respectively, visited the NCSC’s London headquarters this year, in a sign of the close links between the American and British services.

“The UK example is interesting,” said the US intelligence official, adding America has not been able to address the cyber threat.  The official cited the UK’s effort to develop a national cyber strategy and house its own cyber security protection regime within each of the intelligence agencies, adding the US has “not yet done any of this”.

The official said that countries such as the UK also had more of a tradition of interference in the private sector that probably “wouldn’t be tolerated as much” in the US. “The problem is the US is bigger and more complex and there isn’t a unity of focus,” said Mr Ledgett.

Set up in 2016, the NCSC works closely with companies to manage incidents, protect critical services from attack and provide guidelines for tackling the cyber threat. 

“Every country is grappling with this and trying to work out how to do this coherently,” explained Robert Hannigan, a former director of GCHQ who was instrumental in establishing the NCSC. “There are often too many players in cyber and a lack of clarity over who is responsible for what.”

Although the US boasts some of the world’s most advanced and best resourced cyber capabilities inside government bodies such as the National Security Agency and the Department for Homeland Security, senior American officials are divided over the best way to organise and co-ordinate sprawling cyber defence programmes.

Responsibility for defending the US private sector from cyber-attack rests with the Department for Homeland Security. But US cyber defence operations also sit with the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Defense, the National Guard and the CIA. Fears over US vulnerability come amid growing evidence of cyber hostility from Russia, North Korea and China. US intelligence chiefs describe continuing efforts from Moscow to subvert US democratic institutions, amid allegations that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Kremlin to secure his election as president. 

Foreign hackers have also previously stolen classified plans from defence contractors, including for high-tech weapons such as the flagship stealth F35 fighter jet.

The private sector’s lack of enthusiasm for engaging more directly with US spying agencies is partly based on a lingering paranoia among company executives after the 2013 leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA surveillance.

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