Leading article: An age of uncertainty

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The Independent Online

Cyber warfare is a growing threat to Britain, the latest government review of the security services suggested yesterday. After a decade in which the primary security concern has been with the so-called "war on terror" this shift of emphasis is to be welcomed. No one should doubt the gravity of the threat from individual terrorists, but greater potential danger comes from lower-grade but far more quotidian threats. There are more than 1,000 malicious cyber attacks on British state networks every month, the head of the monitoring service at GCHQ revealed recently. They use the same technology that ordinary citizens use to go about their daily business. Nations are using cyber techniques to bring diplomatic or economic pressure to bear on one another. Small scale but significant cyber attacks happen every day.

The estimate is that 80 per cent of these can be foiled by basic network security disciplines. But the remainder of the threat is too complex to be addressed by simply building security walls ever higher. Rather it requires a refocusing of a security policy which has in the past concerned itself with Cold War priorities like nuclear deterrents and aircraft carriers. The danger is not merely to the computer systems of traditional military targets. Severe economic disruption could be caused to this country by cyber attacks from terrorists of hostile foreign powers on a wider range of areas from nuclear power stations and reservoirs to water networks and transport networks. The blacking out of power to computers, telephones and fridges could paralyse regions or whole sectors of the economy. And a flourishing knowledge economy needs to be able to protect the intellectual property at the heart of our high-tech and creative industries.

There are questions to be raised about how thorough the Government has been in this review. It has clearly been driven by cost-cutting priorities and has had only limited time for strategic reflection. The criticism from Labour's shadow Foreign Secretary, Yvette Cooper, and the respected foreign affairs think-tank, Chatham House, may have some force on that point.

But what is clear is that a security policy that concentrates on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation and organised crime can no longer suffice. There are wider threats. Wider strategies of cross-border co-operation will therefore be required if differences between jurisdictions are not to create weak spots for attackers to exploit. This is an age of uncertainty and it is prudent for those charged with our security to scan the horizon for threats with more imagination.