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Securing UK’s critical national infrastructure is a 2021 priority

Government outlines the UK’s strategic cyber security policies for the coming 12 months, with critical national infrastructure a clear priority

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI) to disruption by malicious actors, and ensuring the resilience of such essential services will be a clear priority in the next 12 months, according to the government’s annual National Cyber Security Strategy 2016-2021 (NCSS) progress report.

In her introduction to this year’s progress report, which reflects on progress already made against the NCSS goals and outlines future priorities as the strategy enters its final year, paymaster general Penny Mordaunt wrote that the tumultuous events of the past 12 months have done much to reinforce the importance of cyber security to the UK’s national wellbeing.

“Millions of us have been relying more heavily on digital technology to work, shop and socialise,” wrote Mordaunt. “It has been an empowering and liberating force for good at a time when people have felt confined. It has been a lifeline keeping people connected with family and friends, ensuring the most vulnerable receive medicines and food deliveries, and is underpinning the operational delivery of our ongoing response to the pandemic.

“But alongside the clear benefits technology brings come growing opportunities for criminals and other malicious actors, here and abroad, to exploit cyber as a means to cause us harm. That is why the role of this strategy and the diverse range of talented and committed cyber security professionals across all sectors of our economy are so important in keeping citizens and services safe.

The UK’s departure from the European Union presents new opportunities to define and strengthen our place in the world as a sovereign and independent country. That includes how we tackle existing and emerging cyber security threats at a time when the global landscape is changing dramatically.”

Mordaunt added: “Our approach to cyber security strategy post-2021 will reinforce the outcome of the current Integrated Review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy. It will ensure we can continue to defend the UK against evolving cyber threats, deter malicious actors, develop the cyber skills and cyber sector we need and build on the UK’s international leadership, influence and action on cyber security in the years ahead.”

In the past 12 months, the government has run several initiatives to evolve and strengthen the approaches that CNI organisations take to cyber security, working across government, with various regulators and public and private sector organisations to build a collective understanding of the challenges faced by CNI owners, and develop new strategies to address them.

This work has included improvements to cyber security regulatory frameworks and the establishment of a Cyber Security Regulators Forum, and the ongoing implementation of the Network and Information Systems (NIS) regulations, which a post-implementation review seems to suggest are proving quite effective at strengthening security approaches among operators of essential services.

In 2021, the government will continue to work across CNI sectors to improve assessment and reporting processes, and plans to develop bespoke penetration testing frameworks to help telco operators in particular defend against, manage and recover from cyber attacks.

It will also put more energy into improving understanding of the UK’s supply chains and dependencies – which will be especially vulnerable to disruption in 2021 thanks to the government’s approach to Brexit.

The report outlined plans to extend the deployment of the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC’s) Active Cyber Defence (ACD) programme beyond traditional government sectors in support of private sector CNI.

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Next year, an ACD Broadening project will aim to build on the success of the programme and expand it out to a broader range of sectors to allow them to benefit from automated protection from commodity cyber threats.

Currently, the service includes protective domain name services, web and mail checks, host-based capability, logging, vulnerability disclosure, the Exercise in a Box programme and the Suspicious Email Reporting Service (SERS). While some of these – most notably Exercise in a Box and SERS – are currently publicly available, others are only made available to public sector bodies.

The NCSS progress report also outlined other key priorities for 2021, which include: enhancements to the UK’s threat intelligence capabilities; the expansion of cyber crime deterrence programmes such as the National Crime Agency’s (NCA’s) CyberChoices scheme and the ongoing introduction of Cyber Business Resilience Centres around the UK; improving the NCSC’s ability to respond to cyber incidents, including possibly automating some aspects of the process; enhancing security by design standards for connected products and services, working with bodies such as ETSI; bolstering cyber security resilience within the public and private sectors; and developing the UK’s cyber security sector through ongoing startup and scaleup acceleration projects and skills programmes.

However, 2021 also marks the end of the NCSS in its current form, and there is still no clear idea as to what comes next. The NCSS has been heavily criticised – including by the National Audit Office (NAO) – for missing targets and goals, and although the report made no mention of its misfires, it did highlight the need to plan for the future.

The report highlighted several developing trends that will inform government strategy after 2021, notably: the increasing reliance on digital networks and systems as surfaced by the pandemic; the increasing pace of technological change and greater global competition; a wider range of cyber adversaries as more criminal groups gain access to commoditised attacks and state-backed actors enhance their capabilities; and competing visions for the future of the open internet and the possible risk of its fragmentation, which the government said will make consensus on norms and ethics in cyber space harder to reach.

The UK’s approach to these challenges will be largely defined by the outcomes of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, first trailed in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, progress on which stalled this year because of the pandemic.

“The achievements of the last four years mean we start from a position of strength,” wrote the report’s authors. “Cyber security is an area where the UK can genuinely claim to be world-leading. But a changing global context will require a renewed response. The UK will need to strengthen our cyber resilience to drive economic recovery, get ahead of changing technologies, and enhance our international cooperation and engagement to work towards a more stable cyber space.

“We will not achieve this unless we continue to work ever more effectively with partners in the UK and abroad – the devolved administrations, businesses, universities, local authorities, civil society, international allies and individual citizens – wherever they share our vision of the benefits that cyber space can bring. The government will continue to consult and engage with our partners as we develop our approach for the future.”

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