Cyber war not yet declared - but Russian threat is real

By Rowland Manthorpe, technology correspondent
Reading some of today's headlines, it might be tempting to conclude that the UK was on the verge of declaring cyber war on Russia in retaliation for the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury earlier this year.
That is the interpretation being given to a speech by the director of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, in Washington last night, two days after senior Whitehall sources told The Times that Theresa May was "preparing a cyber war" against Russia.A closer inspection of Mr Fleming's exact comments, however, tells a different story. Describing the Russian state as "reckless", the GCHQ director said the threat "will be countered by a strong international partnership of allies, able to deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus".What we heard was a statement of fact, a recognition that "offensive cyber" now forms part of the arsenal of weapons at a state's disposal.
Cyber war not yet declared - but Russian threat is real

Jeremy Fleming described the Russian state as 'reckless'
Given that a British national has been killed on British soil, it would be astonishing if the government was not considering technological responses. Mr Fleming's speech simply confirmed that was the case.Still, seeing as it has been floated, even tentatively, it is worth asking the question: what would cyber war look like? Here, the picture becomes murky.To assess the options at the UK's disposal, it helps to think of offensive cyber on a spectrum.At one end are "hard" attacks on critical national infrastructure such as the Stuxnet worm used by the United States and Israel to disable Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009.At the other are "soft" attacks which use social media to spread misinformation and disinformation (or even just information, which is in precious short supply in Russia at present).
Cyber war not yet declared - but Russian threat is real

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Britain has declared that the Russian people are not its enemy, so launching a hard attack would be an extreme reaction with very risky consequences.
As the WannaCry attack showed, the UK's own national infrastructure is hardly in a state to resist an aggressive retaliation.Launching a soft attack would be, if anything, more difficult. As the indictments released by special counsel Robert Mueller showed, the Russians schemed for years before hitting the United States in the lead-up to the 2016 election, employing hundreds of people at the Russian Internet Agency.What's more, even if it did get under way, this kind of campaign would be hard to justify politically in the UK, a state supposedly based around respect for the value of truth.So what's left? Naturally, UK authorities aren't saying. But the reality may be that there are not too many options - and those that remain rely as much on old-fashioned tradecraft as modern technology.
Cyber war not yet declared - but Russian threat is real

Whitehall sources say GCHQ has the 'cyber capability' to target the GRU
But, whatever happens - and we may never hear about the result - it is becoming increasingly clear that the threat from Russia is forcing the UK and other western states to gear up for all aspects of a cyber conflict.Because, with the Russians launching "fake news" attacks on the US, France and the UK, as well as numerous other states, you could say that cyber war is already here. We just don't know it yet.
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As the GCHQ director put it in his speech last night: "The threat from Russia is real. It's active."That is impossible to deny.
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