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Terrorists could bring down the UK's internet – but would probably choose the power grid instead

Wednesday, December 9th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Cyber terrorists could bring down the UK’s broadband network – but the power grid would be a better target, say Europe's top cyber security specialists.

Mikko Hypponen, who has advised governments on cyber-security issues in the US, Europe and Asia, said the UK’s broadband network could be at risk from either physical or virtual attack, but such an attack would have to be extremely well coordinated.

Mr Hypponen, who is chief research officer at cyber security specialists F-Secure, has played a key role in warning against, and combating, several worldwide cyber security threats.

He said it would be possible to bring down the UK's broadband network – either through a physical or virtual attack – but told Cable.co.uk: "Executing such an attack would be far from easy.”

A large amount of planning, funding and skills would be required, and attackers with such resources would be unlikely to have a motive to do it, he said.

James Blessing, chair of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), said a physical attack on broadband infrastructure like Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) would be possible but unlikely to succeed as it would have to hit a variety of high-security locations simultaneously.

Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) are the routes by which internet traffic passes from one network to another, allowing networks to connect to other networks so traffic can move around the UK and overseas.

“The majority of traffic that’s shared in one place happens on the London Internet Exchange (LINX),” Mr Blessing said. “That doesn’t mean that everybody uses LINX, it basically means that’s where lots of it is shared.”

A physical attack would have a “short-term serious effect", he said, but added that it is not in one single place but spread out in multiple locations meaning terrorists would “have to hit all of them at the same time”.

“These places are not unsecure, they are in highly-guarded locations that as a network engineer are a pain to get into.

“They are in high security buildings and there’s usually a perimeter fence that is well away from the building. You would have to have a seriously big truckful, you’re talking a load of fertiliser bigger than the IRA used to use.”

'People will die'

Mr Hypponen admitted that extremists had already demonstrated they are willing to launch attacks “that make no sense”, but it was unlikely that they would try to bring down the UK’s internet network.

“The Islamic State has demonstrated that they have the most credible offensive cyber capability of any of the jihadist extremist movements, and even they are far away from having this level of operational skills in their disposal."

If the terrorist group did have the capability to launch an attack of this scope, his view is that they would go after a bigger target, such as the UK's electrical grid.

“Why bother toying around taking down the net if you could take down the electric grid?," he said. That's going to kill the net too, and it's going to cause much more damage and mayhem.

“If the net is down, people won't die. If electricity is down, people will die,” he warned.

The UK government has already recognised the risk of cyber attacks from Islamic State. Chancellor George Osborne announced a £1.9bn investment in cyber security during a speech at GCHQ last month.

He said the group was already using the internet for "hideous propaganda" and planning, but it was already looking to attack the UK's infrastructure.

“They have not been able to use it to kill people yet by attacking our infrastructure through cyber attack. They do not yet have that capability. But we know they want it, and are doing their best to build it.

“The stakes could hardly be higher – if our electricity supply, or our air traffic control, or our hospitals were successfully attacked online, the impact could be measured not just in terms of economic damage but of lives lost.”

'Cyber attacks'

Euros Evans, chief technical officer at Airwave, which runs the mobile network used by the UK's emergency services, said it is designed to be resilient to attacks.

Core parts are duplicated so issues like technical problems, extreme weather, and targeted terrorist attacks, won't cause it to fail, and more than a third of its base stations can carry on working for seven days even if the entire National Grid failed.

"Sometimes the easiest way to deny service on to something is to not attack the service itself but to attack the other services which it’s dependant on ie power resilience," he said.

"If someone was to deny service through being able to attack the power distribution then we have the necessary resilience to be able to deal with this."

Professor Tim Watson, director of the Cyber Security Centre at WMG, part of the University of Warwick, said resilience and the ability to bounce back from attacks is as important as preventing them in the first place, so ISPs and governments should have plans in place in case they fall victim to an attack.

Describing the effects of a cyber attack on Estonia in 2007, he said: "People couldn’t get money out of the banks, the communications weren’t working, they wouldn’t be able to get access to the websites for government.

“As a result Estonia have put in a remarkable governmental system. In effect Estonia’s government is online and at very short notice it can bounce – so it isn’t physically located in Estonia – to servers anywhere in the world. It’s a remarkable system, it’s a very resilient one.”

In his speech last month, Mr Osborne said the number of cyber national security incidents dealt with by GCHQ had doubled from 100 a month last summer, to 200 each month this year.

As well as £1.9bn funding over five years to protect Britain from cyber attacks, he announced the establishment of a single National Cyber Centre in 2016.

This week universities across the country were among organisations to lose their internet connections after the network Janet fell victim to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.

In October broadband provider TalkTalk was hacked, with tens of thousands of bank account and credit and debit card details, customer dates of birth, and email address, names and phone numbers accessed. Five people have been arrested in connection with the hack so far.

Additional reporting by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

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