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UK's Osborne gets aggressive on cybersecurity

Here in the UK, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (chief budget holder) George Osborne has a reputation for parsimony but the Prime Minister David Cameron’s old friend and colleague today showed a willingness to spend on cybersecurity.

In a remarkable speech that took place at the home of British intelligence gathering and listening in, GCHQ in Cheltenham, Osborne set out plans to spend heavily on security and to use security knowhow as a weapon against enemies if necessary.

Osborne said total spending on cybersecurity will rise to about £3.2bn. A chunk of that, £1.9bn, will be made up of increased spending over five years “to protect Britain from cyber attack and develop our sovereign capabilities in cyberspace”.

Osborne also talked up the UK’s chances of emulating Israel’s hugely successful programme to educate its youth with software development skills.

He also hinted broadly that the UK could itself use digital means to attack enemies:

“Thanks to the investment that we have made during the last Parliament, just as our adversaries can use a range of actions against us, from the virtual to the physical, so we are making sure that we can employ a full spectrum of actions in response. We reserve the right to respond to a cyber attack in any way that we choose.”

GCHQ was effectively set up under Winston Churchill and this was a speech that in taking the battle to the enemy at times verged on the Churchillian. It was all the more surprising in that for many years the UK has been criticised for its overly passive approach to cyber security and digital crime. For a second opinion I spoke briefly to Emily Orton, director at UK security software company Darktrace, who was at GCHQ for the Osborne speech.

“I thought it was very positive and quite meaty in terms of the proposals set out to strengthen cyber of the UK,” said Orton.

“There was a recognition we can’t possibly ring-fence everything or build a wall around the whole country, which means getting a lot smarter. Given the climate of the moment there is a concentration of resources being spent in this area. It’s not just government but critical national infrastructure and business infrastructure [that must be guarded].

“When we founded Darktrace there were still people burying heads in the sand and saying ‘my network is clean’. As Osborne said, you can’t put a hermetic seal around it.”

Orton said the Government had realised the importance of equipping itself with leading digital skills.

“There’s quite a lot of tech talent in the UK and we don’t often praise it enough. We need to break away from the legacy approach and the status quo. We need a shift to a much more realistic mind-set that says we will have problems, we will have things that will go wrong and we will have people circulating in our midst. Then we can get to next part: adopting the best strategies to spot strange things happening. It’s not perfect and there’s no silver bullet. It’s not a solvable problem but an ongoing problem [we must address].”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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