Dystopian visions of technology out of control don’t trouble the Director of GCHQ. Criminal gangs, hostile nation states and the risks of a severe cyberattack do.
Jeremy Fleming, in his first public speech yesterday, emphasised the dizzying pace at which technological progress both strengthens his intelligence capabilities – and those of the hostile actors he needs to use them against.
He was speaking at CYBERUK 2018 – the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) flagship event on cyber security – in Manchester on Thursday. Earlier in the day, GCHQ had announced that it would be opening a new cybersecurity centre in Manchester.
Fleming, who took up the post last Easter, joining from MI5, where he was deputy director, said: “Thankfully, I’ve always been an optimist where technology is concerned. I didn’t fear Azimov’s three rules of robotics. The threat of Skynet taking over. Or the menacing voice of HAL. That said, the pace of breakthroughs today is truly unrelenting. Scanning the horizon, there’s so much to excite us. [But] these huge strides have both enabled what we do and made the business of intelligence and security much harder.”
In this rapidly changing landscape, cyber has become an “indispensable part of modern national security statecraft”, he added; but also offered measured words on the threat to business: “Even the best-equipped actors will use simple tools and techniques if they work. Implementing basic cyber security practices remains the best way to tackle the majority of cyber threats.”
The realities of today’s evolving threats, laid out in some detail by Fleming, mean GCHQ needs to develop new skills and a more diverse workforce, he emphasised – highlighting an ongoing recruitment drive.
“Most leaders of big organisations will have said something similar. But for GCHQ it’s baked into our history and I’m clear that it’s critical to our future. we need to offer more flexible careers, where individuals can more easily work at lower levels of classification, can pursue their interests in the private sector and can bring the best of that back into GCHQ. This means changing the perception of a career in the intelligence community so that more men and women from every part of society can imagine themselves thriving in the intelligence and security world.”
Referring to GCHQ’s efforts against the Islamic State, or Daesh, he said: “Much of this is too sensitive to talk about, but I can tell you that GCHQ, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, has conducted a major offensive cyber campaign against Daesh. This is the first time the UK has systematically and persistently degraded an adversary’s online efforts as part of a wider military campaign… We may look to deny service, disrupt a specific on-line activity, deter an individual or a group, or perhaps even destroy equipment and networks.”
Strategic Level Approaches
There are strategic level approaches that can make a real difference too. These are proactive strategies, not reactive ones, Fleming highlighted.
He said: “A great example is the NCSC’s Active Cyber Defence programme. This aims to remove the threats before they get to their victims. Just last week, our new DNS filtering service blocked access to more than 2,000 malicious domains, protecting users of Government networks, and therefore the Government, from harm. Despite these approaches, we know that we will never stop everything. So a crucial part of our ambition is to improve the nation’s ability to respond to a cyberattack.
The creation of the NCSC provides a central focus for this work – last year it responded to over 800 incidents, much more than we expected when we set up 18 months ago. Thankfully, none of these have yet been of the highest level of seriousness. But as we’ve said all along, it’s only a matter of time.”