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Cyber insecurity

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

The NatWest banking disaster is an ominous reminder of the way in which technology has come to control our lives. We now know what a proper IT collapse feels like: a piece of computer code goes wrong and, within days, bank machines shut down and chaos ensues. This week the stories range from unpaid bills to the parents of a critically ill seven-year-old in hospital in Mexico fearing that her life-support machine would be turned off for want of funds. NatWest says it was a software screw-up, not a cyber-attack. But there are plenty of the latter taking place every day.

As we show in our special cybersecurity supplement this week, Britain’s dependence on computers has become one of our biggest vulnerabilities. Already, major companies suffer cyber-attacks, usually attributed to China. Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, used a rare public speech this week to warn of ‘industrial-scale processes, involving many thousands of people, lying behind both state-sponsored cyber-espionage and organised cybercrime’.

Three years ago, al-Qa’eda attempted to blow up Telehouse in East London, the United Kingdom’s main internet hub. Their successors may not need a bomb. The worry is that Britain has still not quite woken up to the scale of the threat. The US realised its vulnerability three years ago and set up Cyber Command, a fourth branch of the military (after air, sea and land). Britain has belatedly responded with its Defence Cyber Operations Group, but it still struggles with innovation. If the enemy is an army of hackers in a Chinese province, how is Britain going to respond? Estonia, which fell victim to a cyber-attack five years ago, has now established the digital equivalent of a territorial army: a large group of civilian hackers and programmers who agree to work for the security of their country. There is no British equivalent. We are still relying on the Ministry of Defence.


Ministers tap their noses and say that Britain, if it chose, would have the capacity to strike back. We can, apparently, switch off street lights in Beijing. But Cold War-style threats of retaliation are meaningless in a cyberwar in which it is impossible to trace the aggressor. A South Korean investigation into a recent cyber-assault, thought to have come from North Korea, traced it back to an internet server in Brighton. Cyberwarfare is asymmetric: unidentifiable enemies can attack in a split second, and it can take a state bureaucracy years to come up with a response.

Until recently, this was the realm of science fiction. Last year a hacking collective called Anonymous threatened to target RBS, parent company of NatWest, in supposed retaliation for its help in funding oil deals in Canada. At the time, the threat seemed laughable. Now, less so. Thanks in part to NatWest, we have caught a glimpse of what might ensue if three or four banks were to have their central clearing systems paralysed. Our dependence on computers is truly frightening.

The UK government does not yet legally require its banks to report hacks of their systems in the way that GPs are obliged to report exotic viruses. There is not, as yet, a standard level of internet safety that must be met, as there is for the water, nuclear and electricity companies who are crucial to our national infrastructure. James Brokenshire, the crime and security minister, is currently in charge of policing the Olympics, which is a tough job. But it’s nothing compared to his other responsibility: protecting Britain from a fast-mutating threat that we are only beginning to understand.

Elizabeth the Great

When the story first surfaced that official plans were afoot to re-name Big Ben the Elizabeth Tower, this magazine assumed it was a hoax. Not because the Queen does not deserves such an honour ­ but because both she, and Big Ben, deserve so much more. This is a silly idea, and a profoundly un-conservative one: an unnecessary change for the worse. Big Ben is fêted worldwide; people who’ve never been to London have heard of and wish to visit Big Ben. It’s a national point of pride — so why change its name? The MPs who supported the proposal have hurriedly said that, of course, they expect Big Ben to remain as a nickname, in which case, what a paltry, invisible honour for our Queen. Pedants will point out that the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben can in theory co-exist because Big Ben technically refers to the biggest of the tower’s five bells. But the greater truth is that ‘Big Ben’ has long been used to refer to the tower itself.

So little thought can have gone into this idea it’s hard not to assume that the 331 MPs who supported it were inspired, not by reverence for the Queen, but by fear of seeming out of step with the national mood in this Jubilee year. In 2016, the Queen will be 90, and we’ll have a perfect excuse to come up with a better idea. The Spectator has a suggestion: why not rename our monarch Elizabeth the Great? We have not had a ‘great’ since Alfred, although the Russians have had two. It would be a fitting tribute to an incomparable Queen.


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