Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of the GCHQ spy listening centre, sounded the alarm over the growing threat from criminal gangs, some linked to hostile states, paralysing computer networks and demanding a ransom to unlock them.
Secret operations are being launched by Britain’s National Cyber Force to “go after” ransomwarers beyond the reach of law enforcement agencies.
Sir Jeremy did not go into details of these counter-strikes but stressed intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies needed to do more so ransomware “pays less”.
Links between “criminal actors and state actors” are also been pursued so “costs” can be imposed to deter such actions.
“We’ve seen twice as many attacks this year as last year in the UK,” Sir Jeremy told the Cipher Brief: Threat Conference, stressing the need for businesses and other organisations to boost their cyber defences.
“We have up until quite recently left a lot of this playing space to those criminal actors in effect to proliferate and to make a lot of money,” he said.
In a wide-ranging interview, the spy chief also highlighted the threat posed by the rise of China and how the West had to stay ahead in the technological race to ensure Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and other landmark changes are based on western, liberal values.
There were “swing states” currently undecided as to whether to adopt the West’s vision of technological progress and the future, or another such as China’s.
Ransomware gangs usually tell their victims to contact them via an anonymous email address or follow instructions on an anonymous web page, to make payment, normally in a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.
They are told if they do so their computers will be unlocked or they will be able to access their stolen, deleted or encrypted data, though, these promises are not always delivered.
Cyer gangs responsible for the most of the “devastating” ransomware attacks against the UK are based abroad, including in Russia and neighbouring countries according to the National Cyber Security Centre, and are often beyond the reach of the West’s law enforcement agencies.
“The pointy end of the spear, which is, well for those that you are finding hard to get to then you go after,” explained Sir Jeremy, without elaborating on these “go after” operations.
While they had had some success, he added: “We’re quite a long way off really addressing the profit model which is making this just so easy for criminals to exploit at the moment.”
Sir Jeremy emphasised that “it’s not rocket science to defend” against ransomware attacks.
“If you do fairly basic cyber security, if you are really clear at an organisational level about things that you need to protect and if you are very diligent in implementing the guidance of your cyber security professionals and your technology partners, then you’re going to protect yourselves or at least make you harder than competitors and therefore you won’t be as much of a target,” he said.
“Back up your data, make sure you’ve got your admin right, sorted out, make sure your passwords are properly protected exercised all of this, work out where your thresholds are, have thought in advance how you would respond if you were approached for ransom.”
However, he also stressed: “Beyond that then it’s clear that we have both got to design the technology better…to make it less vulnerable but as an international partnership with like-minded allies we’ve got to make sure this pays less.”
Britain wants to be a “world leading responsible cyber power”, which also requires having offensive capabilities, and to be “world class at defending our digital homeland”.
However, Sir Jeremy also stressed: “We want to have a role in projecting western liberal democratic values and approaches to technology, we want to shape the rules of technology for tomorrow and ensure that they’re in our image rather than in another’s image.”
He emphasised that China’s rise is “altering the geopolitics in the region and the world and so we all need to sit up and pay attention”.
He added: “We all hope for a world where we can safely coexist with a China that’s safe and prosperous and that we can trade with effectively.”
But he also explained: “We have entered a new era of really strong geopolitical competition where the threat feels much more real from China.”
He believes “like-minded” western liberal nations should work together so “technologies on which we all rely, encompass our values, are secured by design, have been subject to the standards and regulations that we approve of because we think that they do promote our prosperity and our values”.
If smart cities, data centres and cable projects were not based on a “western” model, it would be a “very different model”, he warned.
While China was at the forefront of AI, the West could champion its own model with its “western, democratic liberal way of doing this” as its “market differentiator”.
Britain, America and other allies also needed to be “confident” in the “really strong offer” of values, way of life, legal systems and governance.
“There are swing states all over place who are perhaps wondering which way to look,” he said.
“We need to make sure that our offer is very clear and that’s obviously not primarily a security offer, it’s a prosperity offer, it’s a way of life offer, it’s a partnership and it’s a values offer.”