Unless you are an apathetic slug who has been living under a rock for the last month you’ll be well aware that the Con-Dem Coalition Government has triggered the largest cuts programme in the UK since World War II. So it’s all the more startling that the cash-strapped Treasury has green-lit a whopping £500 million investment into combating cyberwarfare. Say what? Yup, Chancellor of the Exchequer George “it’s a hard road but it leads to a better future” Osborne has loosened the purse strings, at a time when no one is getting any pocket money, to defend the realm from something virtually nobody even vaguely understands. So what the bleeding heck is cyberwarfare? Can you catching it from touching the rails on the underground? And how scared should we all be?
Cyberwarfare sounds like Carri Munden’s latest CassettePlaya collection, or an early Megadrive game only found at Welsh car boots, but it is way, way more important than that. In short, cyberwarfare is the very real future of warfare. Per cyber expert Richard C. Clarke, Cyberwarfare is: "Actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation's computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption." The Economist, no mugs, brand it “the fifth domain of warfare." Wake up and smell the solder of the burning harddrives, digital warfare just went viral.
Broken down, cyberwarfare can he split into two (nasty) categories, espionage and sabotage:
Cyber espionage: The practice of obtaining secrets from business competitors or rival governments for military, political or economic advantage using illegal exploitation methods. Financially motivated industrial espionage is comparatively old hat, but state-on-state espionage is now also trending hard in cyberspace.
Cyber sabotage: Disrupting crucial enemy systems by intercepting orders and communications and replacing them with damaging, degrading replacements. Military activities, often heavily reliant on satellites, are the obvious target. Cyber sabotage can also be aimed at train networks, dams, the electrical grid and (nuclear) power stations.
Really, the migration of war from the muddy trenches to your laptop should come as no great surprise; ‘Everything’s going online these days’ is a true-statement you hear a lot (especially in newsrooms). And it’s not wrong; Lovefilm and the like have snuffed out the high street video shops. Ocado delivers your milk.
So, is Osborne and co right to pony up £500 mill on defending Blighty from cyber attacks? The National Security Council, the body established in May to rate security threats, says absolutely. Their review, delivered October 18, rated cyberwarfare as one of only four tier one security threats to the UK, alongside the threats posed by terrorist plots, small-scale wars spiraling out of control, and natural disasters. Traditional armed combat was judged no more than a tier three threat. Hence the savage spending cuts to cold war kit like tanks and jump jets in the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
It’s not just the NSC talking up the threat posed by cyberwarfare. The UK newspapers are on message. “It has dawned on terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda that using the internet to disrupt our financial services infrastructure, for example, would cause far greater havoc than conventional terrorist attacks,” warned The Daily Telegraph. “Severe economic disruption could be caused to this country by cyber attacks from terrorists of hostile foreign powers on a wider range of areas from nuclear power stations and reservoirs to water networks and transport networks. The blacking out of power to computers, telephones and fridges could paralyse regions or whole sectors of the economy,” grimly forecast The Independent.
By now you are probably cowering under the stairs but come out, it’s not that bad. When William Hague went on Newsnight to discuss cyberwarfare (a concept he seemed to little understand) he intimated that rather than just beefing up cyber defences we are also spending some of that £500 million wedge on launching our own cyber attacks. Take that China! They say attack is the best form of defence. Digital fingers crossed.