The United Kingdom likes to paint itself as a victim of cyber warfare. British officials are continually at pains to raise awareness of the issue.
The British press is no less keen to press home the alleged problem. Most recently, the Metro reported on October 23 that the UK was “targeted” by 658 cyber attacks last year.
The Metro was quoting the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the UK’s core agency for the provision of advice to the public and private sectors on computer-based security threats.
Established in October 2016, the NCSC’s acknowledged parent organization is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s primary signals intelligence and cryptographic agency.
Not to be left behind, The Telegraph (no dove in defence and security matters) pontificated on November 08 as to whether Britain is “already in a Cyber War”.
A year earlier, on November 19, 2018, The Telegraph quoted MPs arguing that Britain must appoint a “minister for cyber security” because it is “lagging behind Russia”.
The constant comparison with Russia – and to a lesser extent China – is one of the hallmarks of British foreign policy. This goes to show that contrary to its repeated claims and protestations Britain regards cyber security as an extension of foreign policy as opposed to a domestic security issue.
This begs the question as to what extent the UK is an offensive cyber power launching aggressive cyber actions against sovereign states.
Despite the proliferation of cyber-related national organisations in recent years – notably the establishment of the NCSC in 2016 – the kernel of British cyber power continues to reside within GCHQ.
The GCHQ’s primary purpose is signals intelligence collection, a task it performs quietly and by all credible accounts, on a massive scale.
The revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA – the US signals intelligence collector) contractor, Edward Snowden, in 2013 revealed the extent to which the NSA collaborates with GCHQ to collect signals intelligence on a previously unimaginable scale.
Snowden exposed the existence of the “Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group”, a highly secretive unit within GCHQ which conducts offensive cyber operations against targets across the globe, including Russia, North Korea, Iran and even inside the UK.
More recently, GCHQ has stealthily, but robustly, moved further and deeper into the cyber warfare domain.
In 2014, GCHQ partnered with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to create the National Offensive Cyber Programme, a seven-year joint partnership which reportedly deploys 500 full-time officers.
The Times reported on September 21, 2018, that GCHQ and MoD are set to launch a “2,000-strong” cyber warfare unit, as part of intensifying collaborative efforts.
The new cyber force, which costs £250 million to set up, and is staffed by “experts” from the military, intelligence and industry sectors, will be focused on combating “hostile states”, “terrorist groups” and “domestic gangs”.
The planned establishment of this centre is the clearest expression yet of the UK’s intent to engage in highly aggressive cyber campaigns around the world, potentially targeting the critical infrastructure of major sovereign states such as Russia and China.
The announcement of plans to set up the new centre came on the heels of a warning by the head of British defence intelligence that Britain must be “prepared” to launch cyber attacks or risk “falling behind” in warfare.
Air Marshal Phil Osborn was widely quoted by the press, in May 2018, as claiming that the threat from “hostile nations” and “competition” between rival nations necessitated an offensive UK posture.
But there is evidence that in many cases the UK is instigating the hostility. This is demonstrated by the operations of the 77th Brigade, a unit of the British army which conducts mostly online-based psychological warfare campaigns against a wide range of state and sub-state targets.
Established in 2015, the 77th Brigade was described by WIRED magazine, on November 14, 2018, as the “troops fighting Britain’s information wars”.
In an exclusive report, the London-based Middle East Eye reported on September 30 that a Twitter executive with editorial responsibility for the Middle East is a part-time officer in the 77th Brigade.
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