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We need new recruits in war against cyber attacks

IMAGINE a war in which one side was able to disable the other's telephone and electricity networks as well as its air traffic control and defence systems.

Military strategists believe cyber attacks will play an increasingly important role in modern warfare.

While the UK Government was yesterday rolling out the red carpet to welcome the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, a former Home Secretary, Lord Reid of Cardowan, was calling on the Coalition to create a comprehensive policy to combat cyber attacks, most of which are thought to come from China. The former Lanarkshire MP has long warned of a dangerous degree of cyber complacency in Britain and argued that the country needs to rethink its defence policy to anticipate the dangers posed by the threat from cyberspace. In a report he will publish this week, he calls for the development of a so-called Cyber Doctrine.

There is already a high level of public concern about cyber crime, which involves interfering with company and personal internet security, and which is estimated to be costing Britain £27bn a year. However, Lord Reid’s pre-occupation is with cyber attacks, aimed at destroying or disabling major computer networks, such as power supplies or communication systems. It is widely believed that the Chinese state employs armies of graduates to hack into targets such as Britain’s Ministry of Defence in an attempt to harvest information about security systems.

Recently Iain Lobban, head of GCHQ, revealed that he is handling email-borne attacks a thousand times a month. It has been revealed that the Ministry of Defence has dealt with more than 1000 “potentially serious” incident in the last year. Two years ago a cyber attack that appeared to originate in China infiltrated the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter project.

Last year Foreign Secretary William Hague ranked cyber attacks with conventional terrorism as a threat to national security and announced a £500m investment in enhancing Britain’s cyber defences. But Lord Reid suggests we are still far from having what he calls “a set of agile policies that shape the way we approach the challenges”. One issue that must be faced is whether the legal definition of “acts of war” needs to be changed in response to cyber attacks.

Meanwhile, as Defence Secretary Liam Fox indicated yesterday, Britain may have to move away from “some of the traditional, more muscular forms of military intervention”.

New recruits in this war may not be men who can lug a 100lb pack across hostile territory at night under fire but rather pale, spotty youths, who have honed their computer skills in their bedrooms. Instead of prosecuting British computer hackers, perhaps we should be employing them.

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