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GCHQ and MoD to launch “2,000-strong” cyber warfare unit

Whitehall is drawing up plans to launch a new cyber warfare unit staffed by 2,000 security experts, according to reports.

The plans, revealed by The Times and Financial Times, would bolster the UK’s arsenal of cyber weaponry, in a bid to deter hostile states from attacking British critical infrastructure.

The unit has been conceived as a joint initiative between the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence agency GCHQ. The two organisations already employ about 500 officers as part of the national offensive cyber programme.

In April, GCHQ confirmed that Russian state actors had been targeting engineering and industrial control systems since March 2017.

Speaking at a conference in Manchester shortly after the announcement, the former director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, warned that Russia’s intent had “clearly changed” in recent months.

Referring to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March, Hannigan said that a country which is “prepared to use chemical weapons on the streets of a UK town may want to do reckless things in cyberspace”.

Ben Herzberg, head of threat research at Imperva, described the plans for the unit as a “serious move, acknowledging the reality we’re living in”.

“Governments need offensive capabilities. Those may be used as retaliation, or as pre-emptive strikes, just like the “regular” armed forces. And they might also scare other actors from attacking that country.”

ESET security specialist Jake Moore added that “working in partnership with the military, security services and industry, whilst backed by some serious funding and the government, is a good step forward to combat increased global threats”.

A GCHQ spokesperson told NS Tech: “The MoD and GCHQ have a long and proud history of working together, including on the National Offensive Cyber Programme. We are both committed to continuing to invest in this area, given the real threats the UK faces from a range of hostile actors.”