Government cyber security strategy is ‘chaotic’

Responding to potential threats at a national level is unfeasible given the time ministers are currently dedicating to Brexit negotiations, says shadow Cabinet Office minister

The UK cyber security strategy is in a “chaotic” state, shadow Cabinet Office minister Jo Platt has said.

Speaking at the ICT Public Sector event yesterday (21 March 2019), Platt told the audience the security measures in place to protect the UK against a cyber attack were insufficient.

“The current cyber strategy is not fit for purpose, it does not put the public interest first,” the Labour MP pointed out.

Platt said that since joining the shadow cabinet, she had met with several associations and trade bodies, many of which have said they lack direction, leadership and vision from government.

“It’s not difficult to see why. The current organisation of cyber across government is chaotic,” the shadow minister said, citing that six departments have various cyber responsibilities, with the same amount of secretaries of state and sets of civil servants who deliver six different responses to the cyber security issue, without any cohesion.

Many point to Cabinet Office minister David Lidington for such direction, Platt said, which is unfeasible given the time he is currently dedicating to Brexit negotiations. “He just cannot be providing the focus, the drive and the steer needed,” she said.

Referring to the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, which pointed out that ministerial responsibilities meant that everyday oversight of cross-government efforts was a task carried out mostly by officials, Platt said cyber security was not a task that could be delegated.

“Our nation’s cyber security cannot be led by ministers who just occasionally check in. I find it negligent that an issue with the gravity, the seriousness and the urgency of cyber security – an issue we know presents grave dangers – is treated as a side job, a distraction, an addition by this government,” Platt said.

The shadow minister argued that such an approach was “hardly surprising” as the government had “doubled up the role of Cabinet secretary with that of national security advisor” and “failed to appoint a chief data officer and a permanent chief security officer”.

“I find it negligent that an issue with the gravity, the seriousness and the urgency of cyber security is treated as a side job, a distraction, an addition by this government”
Jo Platt, Cabinet Office

“This is from the same government that has no idea how many public sector computers are running Windows XP – almost two years after WannaCry,” Platt said, adding that the government fails to record the number of attacks that hit the public sector each year.

Earlier this month, the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the Cabinet Office over failings in how it set up the National Cyber Security Programme (NCSP), which means it may struggle to meet its goals.

The NAO said it was unclear whether or not the NCSP, which was created in 2017 to establish a “focal point” for cyber security activity across government, would achieve any of its wider strategic outcomes by 2021.

To address the issues, Platt said a Labour government would create a new framework for tackling cyber security threats and facilitating cooperation and coordination across Whitehall and local authorities, which would also be provided with more resources.

Platt also said the current government’s cyber security plan “openly and explicitly” expects private companies to address threats.

“[The UK’s cyber security measures] entrust [the private sector] to close the gaps without even a carrot or a stick. To put it simply, it too often asks private companies to find the solution to a public good,” Platt argued.

“We must be unafraid to reclaim the cyber landscape and to confidently put the public interest first, because where corners are cut, vulnerabilities lay idle and we take our eyes off the ball, other actors hostile to us will step in.”

Plugging the cyber security skills gap

Addressing the skills gap was also cited in Platt’s speech. She said 54% of all businesses and charities had a basic technical cyber security skills gap, but the government hadn’t even calculated the shortages in that particular area of expertise.

Citing the current administration’s Immediate Impact Fund, designed to quickly plug the gap and help around 50,000 people, Platt said the fund was helping just 170 individuals.

“Clearly, the plan is failing,” she said, adding that rather than placing responsibility on the private sector to solve the skills issue, the government needed to take more effective action.

Platt said Labour intended to create regional skills councils to develop expertise and introduce a “vibrant cyber sector” to help vulnerable communities.

“We must look towards place-based schemes, not only to revitalise areas left feeling hollowed from the process of deindustrialisation, but also to ensure that no matter where a business is located, it is not compromised because of regional inequalities,” she added.

“It is only government that can provide that whole-system approach needed – stretching right from school through to employment. It must do its fair part to ensure the skills gap shrinks,” Platt pointed out.

The shadow minister concluded her speech by saying that where Conservatives had “absolved and abdicated leadership” for cyber security, Labour was ready to provide it.

“It’s clear that we need a new strategy. We cannot wait for another WannaCry or worse before we take action. We know a crippling attack is coming our way – the questions is when, not if – and when it does, a Labour government will be ready for it,” Platt said.

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