Kaizo / IP Expo Manchester
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Oscar Williams

News editor

Russia is exposing the fundamental weaknesses of the internet, says former GCHQ chief

Russia’s mounting aggression and increasingly sophisticated arsenal of cyber weaponry pose a growing threat to critical national infrastructure, Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of GCHQ, has warned.

Speaking at IP Expo Manchester on Wednesday, the former spy chief said that Russia had seen the potential of investing in offensive cyber capabilities more than a decade ago, long before most other governments.

It’s not surprising that over the years, we and other countries have found Russian intelligence services on our networks,” Hannigan said. “What is worrying is the intent has clearly changed.”

“A country that is prepared to use chemical weapons on the streets of a UK town may want to do reckless things in cyber space,” he added, referring to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March.

In an unprecedented move, GCHQ and the NSA published a joint technical alert earlier this month, detailing Russia’s attempts to hijack internet infrastructure by exploiting routers, switches and firewalls.

“If you are on the high ground of internet you can do extraordinary things through a router or a switch,” Hannigan warned. “It gives you the ability to get in the middle of traffic and the potential is great.”

“The sophistication needed to get in there is considerable, but it does also expose the fundamental weaknesses of the infrastructure of the internet which we are all now addressing.”

Earlier this month, 34 companies – led by Microsoft – signed a tech accord at the RSA conference vowing to bolster online security around the world. The accord pledges to protect users and customers, oppose all cyber attacks on citizens and enterprises, encourage collaboration between firms and strengthen protection by empowering users.

“This is very welcome, but it’s a sign I think, a recognition that we are not where we should be on the hardening of the internet infrastructure,” Hannigan said. The security consultant added that those involved in the early development of the internet had expressed to him their regrets at not making its infrastructure more secure from the outset.

In his closing remarks, Hannigan said that while Russia’s increasingly sophisticated methods are concerning, the shift in geopolitics warrants greater alarm. “As states are prepared to be more reckless, to take more risks, to feel that they don’t have a stake in the international order in the way we thought they did, they are prepared to do things that are genuinely destructive in cyber space,” he said. “That’s where we are at the moment.”