Ransomware and national security – Parliament report 

Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy claims ‘high risk’ of UK government facing catastrophic attack at any moment… and we lack plans to tackle this 

Ransomware is the no. 1 cyber threat facing the UK, according to A hostage to fortune: ransomware and UK national security, a new report by a House of Commons committee. In case you don’t know, ransomware is a kind of malware that damages and destroys computer systems, usually as a means for extortion. Users find they can’t access systems and data, or that data has been stolen, or are threatened with sensitive information being published online. They’re told to pay a ransom – with no guarantee if they do of halting the attack. 

Photo by B Klug

Recent, high-profile cases include the ransomware ‘outage’ suffered by the British Library, and an attack on the Electoral Commission earlier this year. The new report provides further examples, including on NHS systems. These attacks can be seriously hamper essential public services and can be very expensive. 

This is serious, co-ordinated criminal activity – but it’s difficult to combat. Victims are typically instructed to pay ransoms in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which makes perpetrators difficult to trace. The report also says that criminal gangs have the support of other regimes and governments to carry out such attacks. 

‘Russian-speaking actors are the source of most attributable ransomware attacks against UK targets,’ says the report. ‘The Russian Government’s tacit (or even explicit) approval of these attacks is consistent with the Kremlin’s disruptive, zero-sum-game approach to the West.’ But, ‘this is not a straightforward state threat …  For many Russian hackers, ransomware is simply an easy way to make large sums of money, with next-to-no chance of being caught or prosecuted.’ 

Much of our critical national infrastructure (CNI) remains vulnerable to attack, not least financially limited sectors such as health and local government where there is a reliance on old, legacy systems. The National Crime Agency has already referred to supply chains as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the CNI.

What’s more, the report says the UK government has so far failed to address this issue. Indeed, while the Home Office is policy lead ransomware as a security risk, ‘the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman MP, showed no interest in it’, giving priority to other issues such as illegal migration. The report quotes the number of times she and other ministers, including her successor James Cleverly MP, have spoken in the Commons on the subject – or not. 

So what can be done? The report calls for the government to investigate the feasibility of a cross-sector regulator on CNI resilience, with regular national exercises to prepare for such an attack to stress-test systems and ensure swift recovery. It also recommends funding for the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to set up a dedicated local authority resilience programme, with intensive support for local exercises and to secure council supply chains. 

It says the National Audit Office should review implementation of the government’s National Cyber Strategy, with a National Security Council sub-committee established to oversee progress on the strategy’s five core ‘pillars’. The Computer Misuse Act, which is now more than 30 years old, should also be updated as a matter of urgency. 

Lastly, the report urges significant investment in the National Crime Agency so that it is better able to proactively disrupt and thwart those perpetrating such attacks. 

The government has yet to issue a formal response to the report. But Infotec will follow developments on this issue with interest… 

In related news:

Cyber-attack halts home sales 

Tech skills shortage in London holds back green economy 

More councils investigate Capita data breach


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