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Conservative MP: Government should recruit geeks for cyber battle

The Government should consider recruiting IT "geeks" from Army reserves to help protect the UK from potential cyber security threats, a Conservative MP said today.

Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood expressed concerns about the Government's ability to attract the relevant expertise, which he said it might not be able to afford.

He said: "I'm concerned that state operations don't have the funds to attract the necessary 'geeks' ... the expertise, when they are in demand in the civilian sector.

"Banks and so forth, and things like that, pay huge sums of money to make sure they are able to fight off any type of cyber security (attack).

"There is a need to use the reserves who actually have these skill sets, working in businesses, to make sure they can come along to work in the Ministry of Defence, as well."

Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee James Arbuthnot welcomed the idea, but warned that there were no guarantees that such knowledge was readily available within the reserves.

"I would entirely agree, but the problem may be whether there are enough reserves and whether there are enough people with those skills in the country at all," he said.

Mr Arbuthnot's committee has been looking into the potential cyber risks, in recognition of the armed forces' dependency on information and communications technology.

"If those systems should suffer a sustained cyber attack, we were worried that their ability to operate might be fatally compromised," he said.

Following a report by the committee, the Government had started taking action to make the UK more resilient to cyber attacks, but Mr Arbuthnot said there was still plenty more to be done.

He said: "It (the Government) has established a new computer emergency response team in early 2014 called CERT UK, to improve the coordination of national cyber incidents and to share technical information between countries.

"It set up a new cyber incidence response team in GCHQ, to help organisations recover from a cyber security attack.

"It's extending the role for the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, the CPNI, to work with all organisations that may have a role in protecting the UK's critical systems and intellectual property, and it has agreed with regulators in essential services a set of actions to make sure that important data and systems in our critical, national infrastructure continue to be safe and resilient.

"The cyber threat is like some other emerging threats, one which has the capacity to evolve with almost unimaginable speed and with serious consequences for the nation's security.

"The Government needs to put in place - as it has not yet done - mechanisms, people, education, skills, thinking and policies which take into account both the opportunities and the vulnerabilities which cyber presents.

"It is time the Government approached this subject with vigour.

"I am pleased to see the actions the Government has taken since we issued our report - clearly there is much, much more to be done in the cyber world. It is a constant matter of playing catch-up, but I personally do have the impression that the Government is, at the very least, joining in the game."

Labour MP Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) said: "There has been considerable discussion in relation to having a cyber reserve. The conversations I have had with a number of companies that have looked at cyber have told me they are very worried about their employees joining the reserves and their concerns are around the security of that individual when they later have to travel, as many companies do.

"They are worried about someone who has been in our cyber reserve being able to transfer to work in another country, or to merely travel through a country perhaps on business or on holiday and actually being prone to personal attack because of the information they would hold, not only on their company but on the UK's cyber defence capability."

Tory former minister Crispin Blunt said MPs expect the military to have the "battle-winning" capability to carry out sophisticated cyber attacks as well as defend its own assets, despite the controversial nature of the technology.

He said: "Once, inevitably developments in technology are always going to be highly classified as the possessor of the latest technological advantage is likely to have a battle winning capability, I do understand why information in this area is properly restricted.

"However what I would want to emphasise to the minister is that the military should understand that this House would expect them to possess the cyber attack capability alongside the ability to defend their own networks from cyber attack.

"This is of course highly sensitive as the same technology can be applied against other states' non military assets in a way which is far less clear about the way in which whether the laws of war apply."

Conservative Defence Minister Mark Francois acknowledged the need for human expertise, saying "technology is only one part of the equation", as he informed the House that the first "cohort" of IT reservists had been recruited.

"We know that the number of deep specialists and experts in this field is limited and that all organisations, both public and private are looking to recruit from this supply," he said.

"Recruitment for the cyber reserves commenced in October last year and there has been a healthy interest.

"We have already recruited the first cohort of cyber reservists and their training will commence in the spring.

"On the basis of the healthy interest that we've received, we do believe that within the next two years, we'll see the cyber reserve fully operational with reserve personnel, recruited, trained and operating alongside their regular, military and civilian colleagues in the Joint Cyber Units at Corsham, Cheltenham and also in the information assurance units as well."

Mr Francois added: "The cyber reserve offers individuals the opportunity to be part of the proud history and ethos of our reserves, whilst working in a cutting-edge technological field."

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