Islamic State militants will aim to kill via cyberattacks, says UK chancellor

The future direction of cybersecurity investment and legislation is a high priority for politicians in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

The UK is preparing for what it believes to be a hybrid war that will be fought online and off.

Science Photo Library/Corbis

The terrorist threat posed by Islamic State militants will eventually lead to cyberattacks intended to "kill people" by fracturing critical national infrastructure, British Chancellor George Osborne said Tuesday.

"They do not yet have that capability," Osborne said in a speech to UK intelligence agency GCHQ. "But we know they want it, and are doing their best to build it."

For several years now, lawmakers and security experts have openly worried about the potential for cyberattacks that could cripple essential public systems, including power and water utilities, transportation systems and communications networks. Such attacks could be massively disruptive to everyday activities and might in some circumstances have deadly consequences -- imagine medical facilities without power or train tracks with disabled signals.

"The stakes could hardly be higher," Osborne said. "If our electricity supply, or our air traffic control, or our hospitals were successfully attacked online, the impact could be measured not just in terms of economic damage but of lives lost."

In order to protect the country against a wide range of attacks, the British government will almost double investment on cyberdefense in the upcoming spending review, Osborne said. The funding will total £1.9 billion ($2.9 billion, AU$ 4.1 billion) over the next five years and will cover a wide range of initiatives, such as undermining the criminal marketplace, boosting the capabilities of the National Cyber Crime Unit and introducing stronger defenses for government systems and public services.

The speech pointed toward a rising tide in online threats. In the summer of 2015, Osborne said, GCHQ dealt with 200 "cyber national security incidents" per month, double the volume of the preceding summer.

Osborne's comments come just days after brutal terrorist attacks hit Paris, with more than 120 dead and hundreds more wounded, spurring calls for greater cybersurveillance as a means of protection. Details have emerged showing that several of the terrorists involved were known to be radicals by both French and Belgian authorities, but neither government had the capabilities to link the suspects and uncover the plot.

Osborne had already been scheduled to make the speech to GCHQ workers today in order to lay out details of the UK's cyberdefense spending strategy, the Treasury confirmed. He said Britain will make the skills and capabilities of GCHQ open to France.

The increase in cyberdefense spending follows the proposal of the Investigatory Powers Bill, a piece of legislation that would allow British police and intelligence agencies to access the browsing history of any UK citizen and bring sweeping changes to a wide spectrum of government surveillance activities. On Sunday, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested fast-tracking the bill in the wake of the Paris attacks. Critics of the bill, also called the "Snooper's Charter," say it is a serious threat to privacy rights.

From defense to offense

The UK is also looking to expand its own cyberattack capabilities, Osborne said Tuesday. The country has already cracked tracing the origins of attacks and is now working to build its own offensive strategies.

A portion of the investment in cybersecurity announced in the government's spending review will go toward establishing a National Cyber Centre that will report into GCHQ so it "can draw on the necessarily secret world-class expertise" within that organization, said Osborne. Significant funding will also go toward creating a more skilled cyber workforce, while £165 million ($251 million, AU$353 million) will be set aside to buy resources needed for defense and security.

"We reserve the right to respond to a cyberattack in any way that we choose," Osborne said. "At the sharpest end, we need to ensure that our military are equipped to fight the wars of the 21st century."