Defending UK 'digital homeland' from cyber attack as important as spying and counter terrorism, says new GCHQ director

Protecting Britain from hacking and cyber attacks is as important as spying and preventing terrorism, the new head of GCHQ has said.

Defending the “digital homeland” must become a key part of the work of Britain's electronic spy agency, Jeremy Fleming says in his most extensive public comments since becoming head of the agency earlier this year.

The growing task of defending Britain’s online life and commerce means an increasingly prominent role for an agency that has traditionally taken a backseat to MI5 and MI6.

Writing in the Telegraph, he says the top secret, Cheltenham-based agency must step out of the shadows of nearly a century of secrecy to better keep people safe and free online.

His comments come after a series of high profile cyber attacks, including May’s WannaCry ransomware outbreak that caused chaos to the NHS.

Concerns over the UK’s national cyber security have also been raised by a string of allegedly Russian-backed cyber operations targeting political parties and MPs across Europe.

Mr Fleming, said: “If GCHQ is to continue to help the keep the country safe was we prepare for our second century, then protecting the digital homeland - keeping our citizens safe and free online - must become and remain as much part of our mission as our global intelligence reach and our round-the-clock efforts against terrorism.”

His comments come as the Government is reviewing national security policy in the wake of increased terrorism, cyber attacks and Russian activity. 

 The home of Britain's spy network

Mr Fleming joined GCHQ in April after a career at the Security Service, MI5.

The Government last year launched the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a high-profile offshoot from GCHQ drawing on the agency’s expertise to protect the nation’s online life.

Mr Fleming said his staff were “protecting the nation from those who want to use the internet to cause harm”.

“We all derive great benefit from the ease and speed of connecting across the planet: access to knowledge, reduced costs of communication and commerce, and from the additional security provided by default encryption.

“It’s also true to say that hostile states, terrorists and criminals use the same features to undermine our national security, attack our interests and, increasingly, to commit crime.”

In its first year, the NCSC tackled 600 significant cyber attacks on bodies ranging from key national institutions to large and small businesses.

The WannaCry outbreak affected dozens of NS trusts, while in June email accounts were targeted in an attack on parliamentary networks.

GCHQ celebrates its centenary in 2019, but the work of its technical experts, engineers, analysts, translators and codebreakers has been kept secret throughout its history.

Mr Fleming said the agency’s new role would require a higher profile, collaborating more openly with industry.

He said: “All of this can feel deeply challenging for a GCHQ that by necessity has worked in the shadows. It remains the case that much of what we do must remain secret. But the success of the NCSC demonstrates that we are more effective, a better employer and more trusted if we are more transparent, more visible and take advantage of the internet to drive change.”


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