Britain is in heightened cyber-defensive mode to guard against ‘serious and sustained’ attacks from Russia in the wake of the Salisbury attack, a top security official has revealed.
A number of ‘protective’ measures have been put in place as Russia poses a threat that pre-dates the nerve agent poisoning earlier this year, said Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
He said: ‘We’ve been on heightened alert since the horrors of Salisbury and have put in place various protective measures.
Ciaran Martin, chief executive officer of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), said ‘we remain on high alert’
Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Alexander Petrov (right) are wanted by police in connection with the Salisbury spy poisoning in March. The pair were caught on CCTV at Salisbury train station shortly after 4pm on March 3, the day Mr Skripal was poisoned
President Vladimir Putin said that that Russian authorities knew the identities of the two men accused of carrying out the nerve agent attack
‘I can’t really go into the detail of the day-to-day intelligence picture of what we are spotting, but let me be clear – we remain on high alert.’
Mr Martin maintained that Russia poses a ‘serious and sustained’ threat that pre-dates the nerve agent poisoning earlier this year, involving two Russian novichok assassins accused of targeting a former Russian double agent and his daughter.
‘Russia has been a serious threat to our cyber security interests for a considerable period of time and continues to be so,’ he said.
During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Mr Martin said: ‘Let’s not get too hung up on the cyber dimension to the Government’s response’
Mr Martin noted that Russia has tended to target ‘critically important’ national assets rather than mounting ‘consumer or citizen-facing’ attacks.
The UK’s relationship with Moscow has been in crisis since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were left critically ill after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in March.
Last week police identified two men, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as suspects in the attempted murder of the Skripals.
New guidance for corporate leaders
The NCSC has published new guidance for corporate leaders to help them come to grips with the threats their firms face in cyber space.
It recommends boards ask five questions about their company’s IT security:
1. How do we defend our organisation against phishing attacks?
2. What do we do to control the use of our privileged IT accounts?
3. How do we ensure that our software and devices are up-to-date?
4. How do we ensure our partners and suppliers protect the information we share with them?
5. What authentication methods are used to control access to systems and data?
The pair, who are said to be operatives of the country’s GRU military intelligence service, entered the UK from Russia via Gatwick Airport in March – smuggling the nerve agent into the country by using a perfume bottle.
Yet today President Vladimir Putin said that that Russian authorities knew the identities of the two men accused of carrying out the nerve agent attack, but he added that they are civilians and there is ‘nothing criminal’ about them.
British authorities believe the men smeared the highly toxic chemical on a door handle at the Wiltshire home of Mr Skripal, leaving him and his daughter critically ill.
The revelation sparked suggestions that the UK could mount retaliatory cyber strikes.
During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Mr Martin said: ‘Let’s not get too hung up on the cyber dimension to the Government’s response.
‘There’s a full range of tools available to the state.
‘And you would never comment on sources and methods that might be used by intelligence services because, naturally, that detail is sensitive.’
The NCSC, which is part of intelligence agency GCHQ, was established in October 2016 to spearhead efforts to counter the mounting danger from cyber-criminals and hostile states.
Mr Martin explained: ‘Our job is to make the UK the hardest target possible and the most resilient target possible – whether that’s from a Russian attack, another state attack, or from criminal groups who are going to damage the economy.’
However he emphasised that the Russian cyber threat is only one part of a multi-dimensional risk picture.
In its first year, the NCSC registered 590 ‘significant’ cyber incidents across the UK.
Attack targets included key national institutions, businesses and other organisations.
Launched in October 2016, the NCSC has headquarters in London. In its first year, the centre registered 590 ‘significant’ cyber incidents across the UK
Cases ranged from ‘deeply covert’ hostile state acts to criminal attacks that, while not particularly sophisticated, can have ‘huge public impact’, he said.
Speaking at the CBI Cyber Security Conference today, Mr Martin said: ‘There is a lot more to the cyber security challenge facing the UK than just Russia – serious and sustained though that threat is.
‘There are other nation states attacking us too. And large-scale criminal activity is, sadly, ubiquitous.’
Over the past two years, the NCSC has seen attacks on online and physical retailers, ‘which resulted in the theft of millions of items of personal data; a major systemic attack on IT service providers – and through them clients; and attacks on the financial system, he added.
Speaking at the CBI Cyber Security Conference today, Mr Martin said that aside from Russia, ‘there are other nation states attacking’ the UK as well