Preventing cyber crime is central to GCHQ’s mission, says chief

By on 13/10/2017 | Updated on 04/02/2022
An aerial view of GCHQ in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where the National Cyber Security Centre has responded to nearly 600 significant incidents (Image courtesy: Ministry of Defence).

The head of the UK’s spy agency GCHQ has said that protecting Britain from cyber crime must be as central to its mission as defending the country from terrorism.

Jeremy Fleming spelt out his vision for the future direction of the agency in the opinion pages of the Sunday Telegraph [8 October] after the National Cyber Security Centre, which was set up a year ago within GCHQ, issued its first report last week [3 October].

The NCSC is the centrepiece of a five-year National Security Strategy that was launched by the British government in 2016, under which it pledged to invest £1.9 billion in cyber security by 2020.

“In my view, the Government was right to house the NCSC in GCHQ,” Fleming said in the article. “Over the past year, it has responded to nearly 600 significant incidents requiring a national, coordinated response.”

Recent cyber attacks to hit the UK include the global Wannacrypt ransomeware attack, which severely disrupted 47 National Health Service trusts in May, and a hacking attack on dozens of MPs’ and peers’ emails in June.

In dealing with such high-profile cases – as well as other important security threats and criminal attacks – the NCSC drew on GCHQ’s data, analytical capabilities, skills and partnerships, “which help us to prevent attacks as well as respond to them”, he said.

The Government’s investment in “a bigger GCHQ” gave it the chance to recruit “the brightest and best from across our society” and it was using much of that funding to make GCHQ a cyber organisation as well as an intelligence and counter-terrorism one.

Jeremy Fleming, head. GCHQ (Image © Crown Copyright 2017)

Fleming, a career spy and former deputy director general of MI5, who has been director of GCHQ for about six months, said the NCSC was “also challenging us to work differently across the whole of GCHQ”.

“By its nature, it has to work closely with the private sector; it works at lower (or without) security classifications, proactively engages with the media, and has a high profile in schools and universities,” he said.

“All of this can feel deeply challenging for a GCHQ that by necessity has worked in the shadows. It remains the case that much of what we do must remain secret. But I welcome the shift.

“If GCHQ is to continue to help keep the country safe, then protecting the digital homeland – keeping our citizens safe and free online – must become and remain as much part of our mission as our global intelligence reach and our round-the-clock efforts against terrorism.”

In its first year, the NCSC has responded to more than 590 significant incidents, launched the Active Cyber Defence security programme for public sector bodies, which blocks tens of millions of attacks a week, and produced 200,000 protective items for communications in the armed forces, according to the report.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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