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Offensive cyber ‘unquestionably’ used to protect UK interests

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A top UK military leader has spoken candidly about the use of offensive cyber attacks by the UK and its adversaries, emphasising that cyber threats are more subtle than imagined.

As a guest on Sky News’ Into The Grey Zone podcast, Commander Strategic Command General Sir Patrick Sanders explained that the reality of cyber warfare is often less dramatic than that seen in films in which power plants and other critical infrastructure are typically targeted.

“In some respects, the most important, the most relevant use of cyber space is that the real power is in influence and not in sabotage,” Sanders said. “What you’re seeing are our adversaries, our rivals, exploiting the tools that are meant to make for a more utopian society – things like social media – against us, fuelling conspiracy theories and really sowing division and tearing the fabric of society apart.

“You could go so far and describe it as almost fuelling a civil war inside some of these societies.”

He added that countries such as Russia and China are increasingly relying on non-military activities to secure their interests, meaning that now the “most important weapons don’t necessarily fire bullets”.

Sir Patrick said that offensive cyber (taking proactive strikes against adversaries before they inflict damage) is “unquestionably” one of the ways in which the military is “protecting our democratic processes”. However, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming implied on the same podcast that the UK has not yet deployed offensive cyber tools against another state. He commented: “We’re able to say that it’s available to governments to use in that context.”

Last year, MPs on the Intelligence and Security Committee found “credible” commentary suggesting that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In the past year, the government has been under pressure to counter state-backed disinformation regarding the novel coronavirus and its vaccines, as well as fictitious connections with the 5G rollout.

Both Sir Patrick and Fleming explained on the podcast that cyber attacks had been mobilised to undermine IS, including disabling devices, targeting online propaganda and meddling in the group’s communications networks to spread confusion and distrust. Although this remains the only confirmed offensive cyber operation by the UK, the establishment of the National Cyber Force in 2020 would suggest that the UK military is anticipating the need to use offensive cyber more often in the future.

Fleming said: “I think it sends a really strong signal that we and our allies were not going to leave cyber space as an uncontested place. We have to defend it. We have to make sure it’s as secure as possible. We have to make sure that it is still underpinning our commerce, our economy, our society and our communities. Equally, when adversaries like [IS] overstep the line, then they need to expect us to contest it, too.”

Speaking to E&T, Commodore Nicholas Lloyd, former head of cyber for the Ministry of Defence Air, explained that the combination of states and other actors, such as terrorist groups and organised crime, mobilising in cyber space is highly concerning.

Commodore Lloyd said that this is a field in which conflict is not restricted by international agreements such as the Geneva Convention, resulting in a lack of accountability for states ordering offensive cyber attacks on their rivals.

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