Sean Pollock

Redefining the cyber domain to tackle the challenges of tomorrow

Emerging technologies have brought about a new age of cyber – and we need a 360-degree collaborative approach more than ever to succeed

Roll back the clock to 1st January 1983. It’s considered the official birthday of the modern internet as we know it and the beginning of the new information age.

What started off as an ambitious project has, over the past four decades, completely redefined the human existence. How we live, communicate, trade, source information and, indeed, how we stay safe.

It’s widely recognised that the internet was poorly designed from the outset from a security perspective. Whilst the scale of what the internet would become could never have been foreseen by its inventors, there was also an implicit, and perhaps optimistic, assumption that it would only be used with positive intent by its users too. As time has shown, this hasn’t always been the case – users have adopted and utilised the internet in ways that weren’t necessarily envisaged, presenting security challenges which we must now be reactive to.

Today, the internet is everywhere and, as it’s become more sophisticated, so have the challenges and threats that emerge as part of that technological evolution.

The cyber domain has emerged as the underpinning component of the digital age and what was once a niche area embraced only by technology-focused companies is now a trendsetting industry.

If we look at the UK alone, our cyber industry has emerged as a powerhouse of growth and innovation in our economy, due to the increasing digital exposure for all businesses and consumers.

The scale and speed of growth is underscored by the numbers. Since 2016, the UK's cyberspace has doubled in size, increasing from £5.7bn to £10.5bn – a testament to the ingenuity and technical expertise of the nation’s security-minded innovators, and a supportive government system that’s invested in the sector. It’s also reflective of the UK’s increasing dependence on technology to enable key parts of our economy and hence, the continued investment and spend on cyber technologies and services. The cyclical relationship between innovation and investment creates a self-fulfilling dependency.

The rise of the cyber market is fundamentally transforming both businesses and society at large. This is creating growth opportunities, certainly – but equally new challenges are arising as technology takes new leaps forward at a rapid pace.

The complexity of challenges in the cyber domain are increasingly broad, cutting across verticals, sectors and institutions. This seemingly growing portfolio of challenges points to security needs that are equally expansive, perhaps broader in scope than ever before. It’s vital, then, that we develop deeper levels of collaboration on technology development and policy implementation – encompassing the public and private sectors.

It’s important we start to view cyber as an all-encompassing domain, which is crucially tied to the development of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).

An example of this is the National Cyber Strategy. Adopted in 2022, the Strategy signals a shift towards recognising cyber as a distinct domain that intersects economic, societal, security and defence interests.

It’s precisely why close dialogue and collaboration is needed between all stakeholders – government, industry and innovators – as cyber is no longer a specialist area but a growing part of the economy.

The UK government has a strong track record of delivering in this space and has adopted an active approach towards cyber, supporting an ecosystem to emerge that helps the UK to establish the industrial and skills base it needs for a thriving cyber sector, enabling innovation through dedicated funding and support mechanisms and aiding collaboration through industry engagement and close coordination and working practices between the public and private sectors.

The government has taken an active role already, setting up NCSC for Startups, the programme focused on enabling innovators and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to collaborate on solving key cyber security challenges. The government is also a partner in the accelerator Cyber Runway – which we deliver at Plexal. The Cyber Runway accelerator is centred around providing a unified platform for growth that can support commercial companies in launching, growing and scaling their businesses. This proactive stance is essential to ensure national security and prosperity.

An example of the government’s working practices is the establishment of the National Cyber Advisory Board (NCAB), which I’m privileged to play a role in, supporting ecosystem development and growth.

As a forum dedicated to inclusive national dialogue on cyber, the NCAB demonstrates the government’s openness to industry expertise in key areas to help inform policy development and the implementation and delivery of the National Cyber Strategy. A key objective within the strategy is around driving outcomes for the whole-of-society and, as such, the government recognises the need to harness and utilise a range of networks from across industry, academia and society to shape the agenda and achieve their objectives.

The unrelenting progress of tech development is leading to the introduction of new risks and threats. As a result, we cannot be static in observing and addressing legacy issues and must be able to operate on multiple fronts.

If anything, emerging technologies can actually hold much promise for mitigating long-standing cyber vulnerabilities. A good example of this is the work being undertaken through the UK government’s Digital Security by Design programme, with the likes of ARM and the University of Cambridge collaborating to develop new central processor unit (CPU) architecture that has the transformative potential to make future hardware and software significantly more secure.

It’s encouraging to see the UK government taking a collaborative approach with the private sector to safeguard our national security. The expansion of cybercrime over the past few years – which currently costs the UK economy £27bn – continues to show the scale of the challenge and helps to illustrate just one aspect of the real-world harm that the cyber domain can be utilised to propagate.

With such a level of asymmetry between the defenders and those seeking to do harm, we need to harness the collective and collaborative efforts across a community of industries, stakeholders and organisations to drive reinforcing and multiply effects that help use close that gap. It’s with this in mind we work together as Plexal delivers the NCSC For Startups programme to support companies committed to our shared mission to make the UK the safest place to live and work online.

The UK recognises that harnessing science, technology and innovation is crucial to solve today’s challenges. The UK has a world-leading startup ecosystem building effective solutions in cyber security – notable examples include MindGard, an AI security company that helps enterprise to test, detect, and respond to adversarial threats against their AI models, and Naq Cyber a personalised and holistic cyber security service specifically designed to empower small businesses and protect their livelihoods.

With the rise of AI, it really feels that we’re living through the next great technology shift. It’s becoming evident that AI and large language models have added a new area of complexity to the cyber domain.

Whilst we're still yet to understand the full impact of AI, efforts like the recent AI Safety Summit play a crucial role in separating facts from speculation and drive joint action on key issues. It was reassuring to see security recognised as a fundamental condition for the safety of AI. This acknowledgment is evident not only through the UK government's declarations, but also in the US executive order on AI, emphasising a "secure by design" approach. This aligns with an essential trend gaining prominence in cyber security, marking a shift away from isolated solutions towards hardware and software inherently designed to be more resilient throughout their entire lifecycles.

Cyber really has become a 360-degree issue that requires engagement from all segments of society.

It’s multifaceted, multi-directional and is crossing sector boundaries. This all creates new challenges we need to solve and, what’s more, these challenges are cross-organisational, making it that much more complex.

Through our work at Plexal, we aim to deliver on this challenge of keeping the ecosystem connected, and all the players involved closely understanding one another. Government, vendors, innovators, investors and regulators – all parties need to stay close on what is a rapidly changing landscape.

We’re in a great position in the UK, having built a robust cyber ecosystem designed to stay ahead of the curve. However, it’s paramount that everyone – startups, industry and government – is open to collaboration and collectively we can respond to, and pre-empt, the big challenges of our time as a united community with a shared mission.

Saj Huq is the CCO and Head of Innovation at Plexal, the innovation company solving society's challenges through collaboration with government, startups and industry

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