The cyber threat is real

In light of recent events, the whole of Europe – indeed the world – has been sending a message of heightened security at airports, events such as the France v England football match and on the streets.

There is another threat that is on the lips of most politicians – cyber attacks. The threat of attacks specifically against critical infrastructure, including air traffic control, hospitals and electrical grids, is real and is not something that should be casually dismissed.

At the moment there are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in the cyber realm: What if a terrorist group had the necessary capabilities? What if an attack knocked out the national grid? What if we are not as prepared as we need be?

Speaking earlier this week, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, spoke of how Islamic State has a strong digital element. While he makes clear that they do not yet have the capability to carry out a significant cyber attack, he stated that ‘we know they want it’.

The terrorist organisation already successfully uses the internet and social media for propaganda and enlisting new recruits.

As it stands Osborne is set to spend £1.9 billion in the fight against cyber crime over the next five years. The upcoming SDSR will surely point to more details in what exactly the military is going to be investing in to protect against the digital threat.

The idea of a serious cyber attack is not a new line of thinking and earlier this year Sir David Omand, former director of GCHQ, noted that increasing sanctions against Russia could open up an attack from a Russian-state sponsored group in the City.

And it’s not just state-sponsored actors that can cause damage. Not long ago a 15-year-old from the UK was charged over cyber attacks on international websites and bomb hoaxes against US airlines.

Telecommunications giant TalkTalk has also recently been the target of a significant cyber attack where millions of customers’ details were accessed. Two teenagers and a twenty-year-old have been arrested to date.

Motivation behind these attacks have not been made clear but what is clear is that such threats are something that pose a real challenge to governments across the world.

As well as carrying out exercises that involve firing ranges, vehicle deployments and mock-ups of chemical attacks, NATO also carried out a Cyber Defence Exercise recently.

This year hosted at NATO’s Cyber Range in Tartu, Estonia, the exercise bought together 600 cyber experts from across the world, including from partner nations outside of NATO.

The aim was to drill procedures and rapid coordination between nations. Scenarios involved specific threats including mobile malware and spyware or the hacking of a specific network.

Ramping up exercises, investment and awareness is key to security. It needs to be a global effort as there are no borders in the realms of the cyber world. Fundamentally it needs to be a top priority alongside debates on air-strikes and boots on the ground.

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