Did our intelligence services pick up “chatter” about a cyber terror attack on the national infrastructure

The Wall Street Journal reports that:

“British intelligence picked up “talk” from terrorists planning an Internet-based attack against the U.K.’s national infrastructure, a British official said, as the government released a long-awaited report on cyber security.

Terrorists have for some time used the Internet to recruit, spread propaganda and raise funds. Now, this official said, U.K. intelligence has seen evidence that terrorists are talking about using the Internet to actually attack a country, which could include sending viruses to disrupt the country’s infrastructure, much of which is now connected online. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and didn’t say when the infrastructure threat was detected and how it was dealt with.

Terrorists, however, are still more focused on physical attacks that lead to high casualties and grab attention. “For the moment they prefer to cover the streets in blood,” he said.”

I first started raising these concerns more than seven years ago, pointing out in a debate in the House of Lords on the 9th December 2004:

“As a nation, the systems that are essential for our health and well-being rely on computer and communications networks – whether we are talking about the energy utilities, the water and food distribution networks, transportation, the emergency services, telephones, the banking and financial systems, indeed government and public services in general – and all of them are vulnerable to serious disruption by cyber-attack with potentially enormous consequences.  Indeed, the Coastguard Service was laid low by the “Sasser” worm in May this year.

The threat could come from teenage hackers with no more motivation than proving that it could be done, but even more seriously it could come from cyber-terrorists intent on bringing about the downfall of our society. “

At the time, I was assured that there was no intelligence to suggest that such a threat was significant.  The then junior Home Office Minister, Lord Steve Bassam, now no less a person (if such a thing were possible) than the Opposition Chief Whip in the Lords, said:

“there are also terrorists who would challenge and seek to undermine democratic society using any methods within their grasp. It is not complacent to say this; but perhaps it should be made plain that at the moment they do not appear to be interested in attacking us electronically.”

Of course, in the intervening seven years there has been a burgeoning realisation of an increasing number of cyber-threats and, if there is now intelligence to suggest that international terrorists are thinking in that way, I take no satisfaction from having predicted it in 2004.

What is important is that the substantial resources provided to GCHQ under the Government’s new Cyber Security Strategy, published last week, are used effectively to combat the threat. GCHQ and the other intelligence agencies are to get 59% of the £650 million that the Government has allocated to cyber security over the next three years.  It is unlikely that there will ever be much detail published as to how the resources are used, so we can only hope ….

5 thoughts on “Did our intelligence services pick up “chatter” about a cyber terror attack on the national infrastructure”

  1. Estimable, Toby.

    Outdone by the Oxford Bullingdon Club who have infiltrated HM Government and our capital and are in the process of freezing both stone dead.

  2. Outrages were tried by PIRA, the idea of sickening was used by the Old IRA and Stern Gang. Both failed. It is counterproductive. Hit New Scotland Yard, Bramshill, Whitehall.

  3. What immaculate timing for such a “leak” by UK intelligence. Given the known success of terrorists in using the web for propaganda one does wonder why success in cyber-attacks should follow allocating such resources to the agencies.

    Toby you then stated at the end: It is unlikely that there will ever be much detail published as to how the resources are used, so we can only hope…

    Sorry an allocation of ‘59% of the £650 million’ without proper oversight and some openness is no longer suitable. Given the ability of several hi-tech government IT projects to fail and exceed their budgets we need more than hope!

  4. Know doubt some government minister will print out the “much detail” and put them in a park bin for the old News of the World to find and report.

  5. Toby and others,

    Around the time of the UK announcement was the hyped cyber attack on the water supply in Illinois, USA – which was widely reported and cited as an example of what could happen.

    Now the media spotlight has shifted from hype and headlines it appears that this was not a cyber attack. It was in fact an industrial malfunction at a water plant and a faulty intelligence assessment that it was cyber that was circulated widely and maybe beyond it’s intended recipients. An assessment that is simply wrong and missed some basic research.


    One hopes those in Whitehall-Westminster-Cheltenham read the update.

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