18 Oct 2010

Security strategy warns of terror and cyber-attacks

Terrorism and cyber-attacks are top of the list of national security threats in what ministers are calling “an age of uncertainty”.

The prime minister has published a new National Security Strategy, identifying the main threats currently facing the UK as terrorism and cyber-attacks.

The strategy has been drawn up by the David Cameron’s National Security Council as part of an assessment of the UK’s defence needs.

The publication comes ahead of the release of the Strategic Defence and Security Review which will set out the future of the Armed Forces tomorrow.

We are entering an age of uncertainty David Cameron

In a joint foreword to the strategy, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that there needed to be a “radical transformation” in the way that Britain organises its national security.

“We are entering an age of uncertainty. This strategy is about gearing Britain up for this new age of uncertainty – weighing up the threats we face and preparing to deal with them,” they said.

“As a Government, we have inherited a defence and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today. We are determined to learn from those mistakes and make the changes needed.”

National security priorities

The new National Security Strategy identifies four “tier one” risks which, it says, must be the Government’s highest priority.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told Channel 4 News that anmy country failing to make improvements in cyber-security could come to regret it.

“For us to decide we need to spend £500million extra on something when we are having to cut back on so many other things means we believe we have to regard it very seriously indeed,” he said.

The other major threats are a large scale accident or natural hazard such as pandemic flu and an international military crisis which could draw in the UK and its allies.

'Until a cyber attack happens it's difficult to quantify'
Cyber terrorism is as big as international terrorism, writes Dave Clemente an international security expert from Chatham House, but in a slightly more insidious way.

It's not a bomb going off in the street or tube, it's much more behind the scenes. You don't know who's attacking you and both the public and private sectors are losing intellectual property. So it's not human lives but something more fundamental to the economy. Until a cyber attack actually happens it's difficult to quantify the threat, but it's encouraging to see the government taking it seriously before something dramatic does happen.

Clear acts of cyber terrorism are fairly rare, from terrorist movements or groups, but cyber attacks on the whole are increasing. There is quite a lot of variety in these attacks. Cyber attacks can be as simple as a malicious software downloaded from an email, but they can also include denial of service attacks, whereby a server or website is overloaded with traffic until it crashes. Another area is espionage or theft of intellectual property.

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Tier two

A second series of “tier two” priorities include an attack by another state or its proxy using weapons of mass destruction, a civil war or other instability which terrorists could exploit to threaten the UK, and a significant increase in the level of organised crime.

Britain's Defence Review: who's gunning for what?
One of David Cameron's early moves as PM was to set up Britain's first National Security Council (NSC). It is one of a string of new moves in the defence realm, which include the appointment of a Royal Marine to the post of Cameron's military assistant in Number 10 – a position not filled since Winston Churchill's tenure during World War II.

Read more
Who Knows Who: Who's leading the changes on the field, and in Whitehall

Also listed as a “tier two” priority is the threat of severe disruption to information received or transmitted by satellites, possibly as the result of a deliberate attack by another state. A large-scale conventional military attack on the UK is rated only as a “tier three” priority alongside disruption to oil and gas supplies and a large-scale radioactive release from a civil nuclear site.

Other “tier three” risks include a significant increase in the numbers of terrorists, organised criminals or illegal immigrants trying to enter the UK, an attack on another Nato or EU member or a UK overseas territory, and the disruption of essential supplies such as food or minerals.

‘Threats from a myriad of sources’

In a written ministerial statement, Mr Cameron said the UK faced a “complex array of threats from a myriad of sources”.

“Our objectives are ensuring a secure and resilient United Kingdom, and shaping a stable world,” the Prime Minister said.

“In pursuit of these goals, our highest priorities are tackling terrorism, cyber-security, international military crises and natural disasters such as floods and pandemics.

“We will draw together and use all the instruments of national power to tackle these risks, including the Armed Forces, diplomats, intelligence and development professionals, the police, the private sector and the British people themselves.”