Britain to ‘strike back’ against cyber attack

Hacking: ‘Smart’ appliances are particularly vulnerable. (Although they can’t bite you — yet.)

Yesterday the Queen opened the National Cyber Security Centre, which is designed to improve the UK’s resilience to cybercrime. How much should we worry about this 21st century menace?

‘Ma’am, there has been a new Machine Age, every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution’.

Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ — a British intelligence and security organisation — addressed these words to the Queen, who yesterday opened the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which will form part of GCHQ.

The NCSC aims to improve Britain’s defences against cyber-attacks. It claims that the UK faces about 60 serious cyber-attacks every month. Hannigan said that its formation heralded a ‘new chapter in nearly 100 years of GCHQ service to the country.’

‘We want to make the UK the hardest target’, said Ciaran Martin, the NCSC’s chief executive. ‘What we are are doing really matters: we are living in one of the most digitally advanced economies in the world and our job is to keep the UK as the safest place to live and work online.’

Cyber-crime has been one of the biggest talking points of the last year. Russia has been accused of meddling in the US election, leaking Olympic medical files, and destroying a French TV news station. And Britain, whose digital sector is estimated to be worth over £118bn per year, has a lot to lose.

At the opening, Prince Philip said that Britain’s security services ‘need to hire more people who do not predate the internet.’

Our ancestors of two centuries ago hardly ever experienced automation. Now, everything we do, from mundane tasks like washing the dishes to more serious matters like online banking, involves automatic machines. And if we are capable of operating them, no doubt the hackers can too.

It is not too hard to conjure apocalyptic visions of deadly hacks on hospitals, power grids and nuclear weapons in a bleak but near future. For many, cyberwar is the new nuclear Armageddon. But should it be?

Hacked off

Yes, say some. The internet has become a huge part of our lives, and is crucial to the infrastructure of wealthy countries. Hacks into our finances and medical records are scary enough. A major attack which cut off all electricity and communication would cause widespread panic. If it could not be restored, how long until society as we know it collapsed?

Calm down, respond others. New technology always comes with predictions about the end of the world. Antibiotics cure diseases, but leave us vulnerable to superbugs. Nuclear power gave us an amazing energy source — and the atomic bomb. When the railway was first invented, Victorians thought that the human body couldn’t handle such high speeds, and that riding trains would make them melt. It didn’t. No matter how much we predict the apocalypse, it never comes. So while cybercrime is a risk, society is perfectly equipped to deal with it.

You Decide

  1. Is cyber crime the biggest threat to 21st century society?
  2. Why do humans mistrust new technologies? Should they?

Activities

  1. Create an information leaflet which explains how to protect yourself from cyber attack.
  2. Choose another major breakthrough in science or technology, and research how society reacted at the time. Were any fears rational? Did they come true? Explain your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Everyone should learn how to be a hacker.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Wait. Should I be afraid of my own toaster?
No — although our resident cartoonist did have some fun with the idea. Smart devices (which don’t include laptops, phones, or tablets) are vulnerable because they usually have a password which is set while they are in the factory and is difficult to change. Last month thousands of these were used to bring down an important internet server, but not to attack their owners.
It still sounds scary. How can I protect myself?
If there is a way to change the password for your smart devices, then change it. In fact, that goes for all your passwords — change them regularly, and don’t use the same password twice. Make sure you have an antivirus program on your phone and computer. Keep your software updated. And never open suspicious looking texts or emails.

Word Watch

GCHQ
Stands for Government Communications Headquarters. It describes itself as ‘part of the team which protects the UK, along with law enforcement and the other intelligence agencies (the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and MI5)’.
US election
Wikileaks released hundreds of emails sent by high-profile members of the Democratic Party. It is alleged they were acquired and supplied by Russian hackers.
Olympic
Athletes like Simone Biles and Bradley Wiggins were shown to be taking banned drugs thanks to official medical exemptions.
French TV
The station TV5Monde was taken off air in April 2015, and many of its files corrupted. At first it was blamed on Islamic State, but earlier this year an investigation blamed Russia.
Superbugs
Antibiotics become less effective over time, and some scientists fear that one day a disease will emerge that they cannot cure.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.