Government warned against "picking fights" in cyberwar

Earlier this week, MPs called for the UK's cyber chiefs to step up operations against other countries and foreign companies.

“While attacks in cyberspace represent a significant threat to the UK, and defending against them must be a priority, we believe that there are also significant opportunities for our intelligence and security agencies and military which should be exploited in the interests of UK national security,” the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said in its annual report.

Experts say the gung-ho approach makes Britain look foolish at a time when it has criticised foreign nations for cyber espionage.

“There could be a backlash, over the fact that the usage of offensive cyber capabilities by Western nations is severely undermining efforts to engage in international treaties and to reduce the proliferation of cyberarms,” said Neils Groeneveld, a threat analyst and information security consultant.

Security company Kaspersky last month called for a cyberwar treaty to stem the rise of cyber tools, while Russia and the US have previously discussed a bilateral agreement.

Retaliation threat

According to Groeneveld, automated responses could lead the UK to attack the wrong country - or even itself.

“A Chinese hacker could launch attacks from Russian systems, after which the UK attacks Russian systems using active defences,” Groeneveld said.

“Or the hacker might be launching attacks from compromised sensitive UK based systems, due to which you would launch attacks on yourself. Imagine the UK MoD using active defences against its own systems, against UK government systems, or against critical systems in a British hospital.”

The analyst's concerns were echoed by security company FireEye, which told PC Pro that many UK departments had vulnerabilities that could leave the UK exposed.

“On the one hand, the ISC’s comments could be seen as a good move in terms of highlighting the extent of the current cyber threat,” said Paul Davis, director of Europe at FireEye. “However, caution must be taken to prevent an unnecessary cyber war from escalating as a result of knee-jerk actions against supposed hackers.

"It's important that a well thought out strategy is put in place to ensure that networks are constantly protected, rather than impulsively picking fights with an invisible enemy without concern for the long-term ramifications.”