UK’s state hackers take on hostile countries and terrorists

For the first time, the government of the United Kingdom formally confirmed its National Cyber Force (NCF) has been conducting offensive operations – against unfriendly regimes and terrorist organizations.

The NCF is part of the Ministry of Defence, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Government Communications Headquarters.

Established in 2020, it’s officially called a partnership between defense and intelligence, and its main role is “operating in and through cyberspace”. However, the government hasn’t actually ever shared details about how the agency works and what exactly it does.

Until now – in a press release, the NCF has shared some information about what it has been up to in the past three years. The agency added a caveat about “the necessary level of secrecy” but said it had engaged daily in operations to disrupt terrorist groups, distributors of child sexual abuse, and military opponents of the UK.

The NCF also countered foreign state-orchestrated disinformation campaigns and prevented external interference in the UK’s general elections. Obviously, as a cyber task force, it also fought continuous cyber threats.

“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,” Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency said.

“In the UK, the National Cyber Force complements the UK’s world class cyber resilience to give the country operational cyber capabilities at the scale needed to protect our free, open, and peaceful society.”

The agency also published a new document titled “NCF: Responsible Cyber Power in Practice” – to reiterate that its operations followed domestic and international law, and were executed responsibly.

The document points out that countries such as Russia and Iran “routinely” carry out cyber operations in order to hurt democracies and do not care for the consequences. But it adds that the UK, as a “responsible democratic cyber power”, is expected to operate in a legal, ethical, and responsible way.

There are three core principles – accountability, precision, and calibration. First, operations are lawful and ethical, second, they’re designed to be timed and precisely targeted. Finally, the impact of operations has to be carefully assessed, taking into account the wider context.

And yet, the NCF claims its work might include covert operations against the IT networks or tech used by the adversary, or involve disrupting an adversary’s ability to use different communications systems to contact each other.

“Operations may also be conducted to try to influence hostile actors. Intelligence capabilities may be used covertly to gather data about a hostile actor’s activities and then used to demonstrate that their actions are known about and understood,” the released document says.

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