Opinion

Thought for the Day:Better out than in?

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.The catastrophic events of 11 September left the world wondering about security. And, if you read the annual Computer Crime and Security Survey from the US, it appears that 85% of respondents detected computer security breaches in 2001, which in most cases cost them money to fix or resolve.

Of course, attacks aren't always isolated incidents. They can be deliberate and prolonged and come from the strangest places. In my recent visit to the Middle East, I noticed that both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait appear to be attracting hackers from China.

So far, there's been a great deal of talk within the IT industry about "terrorist" threats, but little or no evidence that the bad guys will use anything more lethal than email against our national infrastructure.

In the US, my good friend, Howard Schmidt, moved from his role of chief security officer at Microsoft to the White House, where he's now "vice-chairman of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board" and responsible for the security of a network far larger than Microsoft's.

Over here, we have many different agencies with overlapping responsibilities, UNIRAS, CESG, NISCC, NHTCU, and so on, but no single security "czar" with a team, like Howard Schmidt or Dick Clarke.

Two months ago, I suspected that something new might be happening behind the scenes when I noticed that CESG (The Computer Electronic Surveillance Group at GCHQ) was advertising for a director.

Now I haven't heard anyone in my own circles say anything good about the work done by CESG, so I was even more surprised when it was suggested that I throw my own hat into the ring for the role.

With my application I sent a covering letter informing the selection panel that if it was a civil service-type reformer they needed, then they should ignore me, which they did. No surprises there.

Having quizzed a well-connected friend, who offered very useful background and advice on CESG's work, I arrived at the conclusion that in light of everything that has happened since 11 September, CESG might have a more useful future outside of GCHQ and I fired off an email to No.10 explaining why.

At present, the most significant government groups dealing with information security are probably CESG, NISCC, e-Envoy Office, DTI, NHTCU and The Cabinet Office. Of these, only the DTI's "Infosec" group has a specific remit to promote information security to industry and the wider community.

The Office of the e-Envoy concentrates on government to citizen (G2C) issues. CESG has a remit to promote Infosec but, as a part of GCHQ, there's an inevitable conflict of interest.

NHTCU (The National Hi-tech Crime Unit) is obviously more concerned with catching paedophiles than with promoting security, and any remaining agencies are more likely to be concerned with intra-governmental issues.

Perhaps the solution to our own National Infrastructure Protection challenge is to bring CESG out of GCHQ - leaving behind the cryptography element of its work.

Personally, I think the Infosec function it controls would be better placed within the DTI or the Office of the e-Envoy rather than the Cabinet Office, as the issues it deals with primarily concern industry.

By effectively boosting the Infosec group, it will have more authority to resolve such weighty matters as security evaluation in a much more industry-friendly fashion. This solution might also give the support needed to expand the government's scheme to cover the whole range of trusted security provision.

Outside of GCHQ and the "spook" environment, CESG could operate as a central point of focus for Infosec issues with regard to those outside government and will raise the profile generally of information security within the wider business community, something we badly need.

Is this a good idea? I think so, because if we are to take information security seriously, then we need a better line of operational responsibility than the one we have which, to be honest, kind of confused our American friends, when I first discussed it with them at the end of last year.

Will No.10 shuffle the pack and come up with a better solution? Your guess is as good as mine, but I would like to think that the message may have arrived at the right quarters and that the announcement of a new head of CESG may also coincide with some kind of internal change that reflects the concerns expressed in my letter.

Anyone care to take a bet on it?

Is UK security provision stringent enough? >>

Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and ramblings of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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This was first published in April 2002

 

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