The UK faces a barrage of cyber threats from organised crime to state-sponsored hacking groups. In a move to bolster its cyber defences, the UK government launched a new National Cyber Force in November that pulls together the capabilities of GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence.
The new agency will be capable of undertaking offensive actions, such as interfering with a terrorist’s mobile phone, in addition to defensive cyber operations.
But given the UK’s existing security agencies, will the joint Ministry of Defence-GCHQ force make the country and businesses any safer? Verdict asked six cybersecurity experts to share their view of the National Cyber Force.
National Cyber Force faces two immediate challenges
“It’s good to see continued focus by the government on cybersecurity and how defending the cyber realm is an integral part of national security. In principle, this should make the UK safer. However, two challenges immediately come to mind. One being how the National Cyber Force will attract, train, and retain the necessary talent needed in the cyberspace.
“The second aspect will be around overall effectiveness. While the National Cyber Force will likely be effective in gathering intel around organised criminal organisations and nation-states – we still see a large number of successful attacks being successful through well-established trivial methods. There have been many incidents in recent months where politicians and researchers involved in developing the Covid-19 vaccine were targeted by state-sponsored attackers through spear-phishing.
“So, while we need to focus on large threats, we cannot discount the impact that seemingly smaller threats have. We need to find a way to balance both to be effective in protecting the nation.”
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– Javvad Malik, security awareness advocate, KnowBe4
“It looks like the government has formed this body to run admin tasks”
“Cool team name aside, the short answer to the question is “No”.
“We live in a world of acronyms and constant sharing of data between agencies, which can create problems in its own right. It’s not clear the exact role the NCF will play other than collaborating with existing bodies, which from the outside looks like the government has formed this body to run administration tasks, rather than to have a real impact in the UK’s cyber defence program. It almost looks like the NCF was formed in response to something, not a real need for another organisation.
“What we really need is governments to announce huge budget increases for cybersecurity, substantial investments in technology, a commitment to improving the quality of cyber studies in schools and universities, and more trust that the people at the bottom of the chain such as consultants, developers and analysts will do a stellar job when given the right tools and support.
“I still look forward to seeing a “National Cyber Force agent” in the next Bond movie.”
– Keith Geraghty, solutions architect, Edgescan
“No question that it will make the UK safer”
“Recent events across the cybersecurity space confirm that cyberattacks are becoming more malicious, more targeted, and, increasingly backed and bankrolled by nation-states. This trend has emerged as insidious malware forms continue to be developed and adapted to maximise devastation. In short, the UK, and many other world powers, are facing a great threat from global cybercrime.
“Public bodies are taking stock of this, and creating agencies and a legislative agenda to counteract this dangerous landscape. The creation of the National Cyber Force is an important element of this. Much of the focus has been on the NCF’s offensive capabilities – yet its key role will be to protect the UK and British businesses against mounting attacks from nation states.
“There is no question that the National Cyber Force will make the UK safer – provided it can understand why the cyber landscape today is boundless, crossing geographies, business sectors and attack vectors. Central to this will be boosting national cyber resilience. Whilst significant investment will go some way in improving the country’s capability to protect itself, changing the discourse so that more businesses are aware of the cyber risks they face, and subsequently become more conscious of their digital interactions, will be a lasting effect of the National Cyber Force.
“By combining the expertise of the armed forces with intelligence organisations, a collaborative approach to increasing security from cyber threats can be fostered, one that shares best practices and gives enterprises and organisations the tools they need to protect their network.”
– Terry Greer-King, VP EMEA cybersecurity, SonicWall
Improving decision-making efficiency
“It is unlikely that the new National Cyber Force brings any new or more sophisticated capabilities than were previously available via cooperation between existing agencies but I would expect that bringing personnel together under one command would create efficiency in decision making and resource allocation which itself could enable the positive outcome of some cyber operations. I would expect operations to be conducted under the cover of national security and so it is unlikely we will be provided with any real detail as to the activity of the department aside from a few press releases from time to time.
“The NCF has vowed to operate in a responsible way and in line with UK and international law but this is relatively ambiguous and will, of course, include additional powers not legally available to the general public including those that may be granted on an emergency basis. This is not altogether a bad thing. Some battles are raging in the shadows and so this is where they must be fought. The creation of the NCF is a positive step if only for the efficiency and the focus it may bring to what is a significant and growing problem but I don’t believe it to be a magic bullet. Threats will continue to evolve and there will be the same game of cyber cat and mouse as we see daily albeit at a national or global scale.”
– Richard Hughes, head of technical cybersecurity, A&O IT Group
“It heightens the national awareness and response to cybersecurity”
“The Cyber Force initiative should be welcomed. At a national level if it heightens the awareness and response to cybersecurity and the allied areas like organised crime, child protection and means resources at government level can be focussed on disrupting cybercriminals, gangs and hostile nation-states then that will help. It’s designed to be proactive and seek out those who would harm us, so within the legal and regulatory framework if it makes the internet a safer place that’s a good thing.
“There is still a huge risk facing governments and businesses around the ways in which they defend themselves from cybercriminals, state-sponsored hackers and other attacks. No one should expect these higher-level government activities to remove the need for an organisation to keep systems up to date with patches, avoid leaving data unprotected, controlling access and having a robust way to monitor and detect for signs of attack as well as overseeing and checking the security controls they have in place. The bottom line is cybersecurity is a problem we all share.”
– Piers Wilson, head of product management, Huntsman Security
National Cyber Force must strengthen industry partnerships
“Cybersecurity governmental initiatives are fundamental to helping our nation’s organisations protect themselves against cybercrime. The UK national cyber force program mission and objectives are taking the correct steps in protecting the national interest, however for this program to be truly successful the National Cyber Force needs to strengthen its partnership with industry experts who can offer a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field as well a share intelligence associated with the latest cybersecurity threats.
“Perhaps regulation is needed to strengthen this partnership. I would love the National Cyber Force partner with industry experts and platform providers to introduce a cybersecurity passport that all individuals would take prior to getting a digital identity such as an email address. Generally speaking, your email address nowadays is your first digital identifier. The course would cover the basic protection controls from a security and privacy perspective for protecting your identity online and reducing all associated risks.”
– Niamh Muldoon, director of trust and security, OneLogin