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U.K. cybersecurity office to have attack role

In extreme cases, a government official says, the U.K. would launch a cyberattack in response to intrusions into its own systems.

The U.K. government plans to form a cybersecurity agency, with functions including cyberattack capability.

The Office of Cyber Security (OCS), dedicated to protecting Britain's IT infrastructure, will be created with a model proposed--and in part practiced by--the U.S. The U.K. government said Thursday that the OCS will have charge of a cross-government program, while a multi-agency Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) will coordinate the protection of critical IT systems.

The OCS will also act as a conduit for information security collaboration between government and industry experts. Robert Hannigan, the prime minister's security adviser, said the OCS would be about "drawing together what people are already doing in the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence services, and the police."

The government has never admitted that it has the systems and personnel to launch a cyberattack. However, according to a senior government official, who wished not to be named, the OCS will have a role in coordinating cyberoffense capabilities that will build on the resources the government currently has.

In extreme cases, the government would launch a cyberattack in response to intrusions into the UK's own systems.

"Yes, we will do things proactively," the official said at a Cabinet Office press briefing. "Information assurance has been about building stronger walls, but there's only so much you can do. You come to a point when you are allowing criminals and others a low risk in continuing to attack, and there comes a time when that has to change. This is the first time we are saying publicly we are not going to sit back."

The government will develop information systems to allow it to launch denial-of-service attacks and to spy on chosen targets, said the official. "We will have a whole range of offensive capabilities, including distributed denial-of-service," said the official. "DDoS is not a first response. We definitely need graduated responses."

"Aggressive attacks are pretty far up the scale, and we want to avoid collateral damage as far as possible. It's a fine line. We don't want to get into cyberwarfare, but it's not reasonable to sit back," the official added.

The Cabinet Office official said the government would try to respond to attacks on U.K. systems by legal recourse: "Whenever we can, we will pursue criminals through legal frameworks, but that only works in some countries. Clearly, in other areas of the world, people are acting with impunity."

The model for the OCS is similar to that in the U.S., which plans to quadruple the number of security experts defending against cyberattack, while cyberoffense capabilities are currently under the aegis of the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon will create a cybercommand to oversee U.S. cybermilitary efforts.

The OCS will pool intelligence capabilities from MI5, MI6, the Ministry of Defense, the Metropolitan Police e-Crime Unit, and the Serious and Organized Crime Agency.

The OCS will launch with a staff of 16 to 20, while the CSOC in will have 20 to 25. "We will start small and learn from initial U.S. attempts," said a Cabinet Office official.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.