Britain’s spy agencies cannot offer “absolute protection” against Russian cyber attacks and are instead focused on preventing assaults that would “most impact on our way of life”, in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, GCHQ warns today.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Ciaran Martin, the head of the agency’s cyber defence unit, says it is a matter of “when not if” Britain faces a “serious cyber attack”.
He added that its focus is now on building “resilience” in “the systems we care about the most”, believed to be Britain’s power and water supplies, internet and transport networks, and health service.
This newspaper understands that senior representatives of utility, transport and internet firms and the NHS, have attended intelligence briefings at the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), on the specific methods – known as “attack vectors” – being used by Russia to target Britain’s critical national infrastructure, following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury last month.
Separately, the NCSC is understood to have written to the Government setting out urgent actions that departments and individual officials should take to protect Whitehall from cyber assaults.
These are in response to retaliatory measures against the Kremlin following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with a nerve agent last month.
Today, Mr Martin, the NCSC’s chief executive, publicly confirms that GCHQ is on “heightened alert” for “follow-up activity” following the Salisbury attack – an explicit link the agency fell short of making when it issued an unprecedented joint warning with the FBI last week about cyber attacks by the Russian Government.
“Turning off the lights and the power supply by a cyber attack is harder than Hollywood films sometimes make out,” he writes.
“But, we’ve seen enough malicious cyber attacks across the world, including against UK health services by a North Korean group last year, to know how services can be disrupted.
“Absolute protection is neither possible nor desirable; it’s about having more resilience in the systems we care about the most, those where loss of service would have the most impact on our way of life.
“We have said that it is a matter of when, not if, the UK faces a serious cyber attack. So last week we presented detailed plans to Government departments about the priority areas where the NCSC will work with them, industry and law enforcement to improve the cyber resilience of the most important systems.”
This newspaper understands that in addition to setting out the “priority areas” it will focus on protecting from attacks, the NCSC provided the Government with fresh advice on preventing attacks, based on the latest intelligence about attempted intrusions by Russian hackers.
The advice is believed to have ranged from highly technical measures that should be taken by particular departments, to more basic preventative steps that could be adopted by all civil servants.
Separately, the agency is understood to have called in representatives of organisations involved in the UK’s critical national infrastructure, for a series of briefings on ongoing activity in recent days, with the sessions including information on the warning signs to look out for, and advice on how to guard against the threats. (The Telegraph)