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Cyber security is as important as counter-terrorism, GCHQ chief says

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) director explained in a newspaper article that security services must be as wary of cyber attacks as they are of traditional threats.

Jeremy Fleming assumed the position of director of GCHQ in March, moving on from his role as deputy director-general of MI5. Writing in The Telegraph, he has laid out a vision of an intelligence organisation which can perform as a “cyber organisation”, not just a counter-terrorism agency.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that our adversaries are quick to spot new ways of doing us harm,” he wrote. “We see that in the way terrorists are constantly changing their weapons or states are using their full range of tools to steal secrets, gain influence and attack our economy.”

Terrorists and other criminal groups use cutting-edge technology to “undermine our national security, attack our interests and, increasing, commit crime”, he said, adding that GCHQ could not afford to remain passive to these threats.

GCHQ is making use of additional government funding to transform itself into a “cyber organisation”, he said, as well as a counter-terrorism and intelligence organisation, as it has been for decades.

The National Cyber Security Centre was established a year ago within GCHQ, dedicated to keeping sensitive information and systems secure. Ciaran Martin, head of the centre, recently revealed that within the first year of its operations 1,131 cyber-attacks have been reported. 590 of these were significant enough to warrant a response by the centre and 30 were serious enough to require cross-government responses.

Fleming comments in his Telegraph article that the high-profile work of the centre (much of which is with industry) has been unusual for GCHQ, which traditionally keeps a low profile compared with MI5 and MI6.

“It remains the case that much of what we do must remain a secret,” he wrote. “But I welcome the shift. If GCHQ is to continue to help keep the country safe, then protecting the digital homeland – keeping our citizens safe and free online – must become and remain as much part of our mission as our global intelligence reach and our round-the-clock efforts against terrorism.”

The government is currently reviewing its national security policy, following a year riddled with high-profile cyber attacks and incidents of terrorism. In May, the WannaCry ransomware infected NHS computers in England and Scotland, delaying appointments and operations, while in June nearly 90 Parliamentary email accounts were reported to have been hacked, allegedly in an effort backed by the Kremlin.

You can read expert cyber security commentary and technical peer-reviewed content at E&T’s cybersecurity hub.

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