Cyber defence is a sensible investment

In the latest installment of Stephen Pritchard's Inside the Enterprise column, he argues the Government is right to boost cyber protection.

Stephen Pritchard

The debate around defence cuts is likely to run on for weeks, if not months. Scrapped ships, disbanded squadrons and soldiers facing redundancy do not make great headlines for any government.

But the job of the Government's Strategic Defence and Security Review, published this week, is to look forward. In this context, it is strange to see some commentators questioning why the review has allocated 500m to combat cyber security risks.

For some time, leading security experts, both civilian and military, have been arguing that governments need to bolster their defences against cyber attacks. This is about more than ensuring government PCs have up to date firewalls and anti-virus software, it is about protecting vital national infrastructure.

NATO, for example, has identified cyber terrorism and cyber warfare as a significant threat to its members. There is evidence nation states are turning to cyber-crime attacks as an alternative to hostile military action, and the results can be devastating.

Large scale cyber attacks have already been launched against Estonia and Lithuania and in Georgia, attacks were a prelude to physical military action. Given the dependency of modern economies on their infrastructure, and the dependency of much of that infrastructure on computer systems, there is a real danger that state-backed hackers could cause devastation.

Nor would it have to be an attack against government systems: a few well-directed attacks against private companies could be as disruptive. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, acknowledged this when she called for the public and private sector to work together more closely to combat cyber threats.

The Government will develop a strategy for combating cyber attacks over the coming months, although it is not yet clear where the extra funds will be spent. But bolstering the electronic defence capabilities of organisations such as GCHQ and even the armed forces seems sensible.

A well-planned cyber attack could make a military response to an aggressor that much more difficult, which is why generals, including NATO chiefs and the UK's chief of defence staff, Gen Sir David Richards, have warned publicly about the risks.

Spending may even have to rise beyond the 500 million announced this week if threats continue to increase and especially if some of the money is to go to help the private sector become more secure.

But with a single Joint Strike Fighter for the Navy's new aircraft carriers expected to cost $60 million each, even 1 billion on cyber defence seems a sensible investment.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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