Defence analysts dismiss cyber war fears

The claims that the UK and Russia are heading towards a confrontation in cyberspace have been dismissed by leading experts in cyber security.

The Kremlin –  photo courtesy of Alexander Gusev

Speaking in War of the Words’, an exclusive PassW0rd radio programme, former intelligence agents, academics and authors all downplayed recent newspaper stories claiming cyber-attacks on UK critical infrastructure were likely following the nerve gas attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in March 2018.

According to Dr Tim Stevens a lecturer in Global Security at Kings’ College London’s Department of War Studies, a cyber war would be extremely reckless for both sides.

“I don’t think it would have been wise on any level to embark upon cyber operations of the kind that was being mooted.

“Were the UK to have embarked on a new course of action through cyber means most of it would be invisible to the everyday observer.

“The likelihood of causing something more visible through those means I would say is extremely slim. It would be visible by design and were the UK to embark upon a rather more overt course of action, that is escalatory, and it is also potentially illegal,” said Dr Stevens.

Professor Andrew Jones, a former military officer and director of Hertfordshire University’s Cyber Security Centre is also not convinced that any cyber attack on Russia is unlikely.

Professor Jones, author of ‘Global Information Warfare’ says that it is much more likely that any response in the wake of the Skripal incident will be an information war using propaganda and disinformation to attack Government institutions and to create instability and uncertainty.

If cyber attacks are detected and attackers identified it can lead to a military response.

“The Russian perception and doctrine is very different. If you go back to 2008 and the Georgia conflict out of that you got what’s classed as the Gerasimov Doctrine and that is about perception management. It is not about cyber specifically it is about using whatever methods are necessary to effect perception and will power, so this is why a cyber response may not be the most appropriate. Our way of thinking needs to change, and we need to understand better what they are trying to achieve,” said Professor Jones, adding that one of the main aims in an information war is to spread disaffection, one of the factors that experts have isolated that was used to interfere with the US Election.

In the PassW0rd broadcast, Commodore Patrick Tyrrell a former military intelligence officer, also pointed out that the Russians’ use of outsourced criminal hacking groups known as ‘black gangs’ is another factor that can make retaliation in a cyber war difficult.

“The Russians have made extremely good use of these ‘black hacker groups’ which may or may not be actively directed by the Russian state and because they are not easily linked to the state they are deniable which is a classic Russian position.

“If you look at Russian activity over the last few years in the Ukraine and other places they’re quite happy to deny things even when it is extremely obvious that they were the people behind it.”

A point agreed with by Dr Stevens: “If the Russians were to attack the national grid they would almost certainly deny it was them. Were it proved that a Russian state actor had been involved in an attack on the national grid then there would undoubtedly be a meeting of the Nato Military Council But an attack would not happen because if it were proved that they had attacked the national grid using a cyber attack it would lead to a discussion about Article Five of the Washington Treaty.

“I see Russia as being provocative, as being destabilising, but I don’t see it as war-mongering with respect to the UK. Putin if he’s many things which he is, he’s not a fool.”

‘The Kremlin from Bolshoy Kammenny Bridge’ courtesy of Alexander Gusev

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(see Future Intelligence’s Sunday Times’ piece: Nato warns of strikes against cyber attackers)