UK spy agency GCHQ has confirmed for the first time that UK government-backed hackers have launched offensive operations targeting other countries. The secretive National Cyber Force (NCF) conducted the assaults, according to a new report.
The NCF, a joint venture between GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence, has used its hacking capabilities to support several operations since it launched, according to the report published today and entitled ‘Responsible cyber power in practice’.
How GCHQ’s National Cyber Force operates
The GCHQ report says the NCF was set up in 2020. Since then it has been used to aid military deployments and “disrupt terrorist groups”. The government hackers have also taken action to counter state disinformation campaigns and “reduce the threat of external interference in democratic elections”.
Further details of the countries targeted in these operations have not been made available, though the report says that “countries such as Russia and Iran routinely carry out cyber operations of different kinds in order to spread disinformation”.
“The NCF’s work is covert and we, therefore, do not reveal details of individual operations,” GCHQ said. “Indeed the intent is sometimes that adversaries do not realise that the effects they are experiencing are the result of a cyber operation. This ambiguity can help to amplify the cognitive effect.”
Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, said: “In an increasingly volatile and interconnected world, to be a truly responsible cyber power, nations must be able to contest and compete with adversaries in cyberspace.
“Building upon two decades of experience, [the NCF] has countered state threats, made key contributions to military operations, and disrupted terrorist cells and serious criminals including child sex offenders.”
Nation states conducting offensive cyber operations
The report offers a rare window into the UK’s national capabilities when it comes to launching cyberattacks. Last year, Fleming revealed that the NCF had helped take down a criminal network that had stolen credit cards with the potential to perpetrate fraud worth “millions of pounds”, but otherwise little has been heard about the taskforce’s capabilities.
It is published months after home secretary Suella Braverman appeared to suggest in a speech that the UK would only carry out defensive, rather than offensive cyberattacks.
Allies of the UK are known to have carried out offensive cyber operations against enemy states. In June, the US said it had carried out cyber operations against Russia in support of Ukraine, as part of the war in Eastern Europe.
General Paul Nakasone, head of US Cyber Command and director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), said “a series of operations across the full spectrum; offensive, defensive, [and] information operations” had taken place.