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UK government threatens to launch drone strikes against hackers

If there’s one thing that everyone seems to be talking about at the moment, it’s hacking.

Recent hard-hitting ransomware attacks like WannaCry have made malware a talking point for the man in the street, and allegations persist that Russian hackers may have attempted to influence the result of the US presidential election.

Most recently, the Goldeneye/Petya malware hit organisations in various countries, and was felt particularly hard in Ukraine where government offices, energy companies, and the capital Kiev’s airport fell victim. Amongst the Ukrainian casualties of the malware was the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which had its automatic radiation monitoring systems.

So you can understand why governments have moved far beyond considering hacking and malware to be the province of childish pranksters. Hacking is a serious business.

This fact was brought home to British politicians last week, when they found themselves locked out of their email accounts after the Houses of Parliament’s IT systems were targeted by hackers.

So, what should be done about this?

Well, UK defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon has an idea: He wants to blow the hackers to smithereens.

Sir Michael gave a speech earlier this week where he described how the Royal Navy or Army could be used to respond to a cyber attack:

“The price of an online attack could invite a response from any domain – air, land, sea or cyber space.”

“When it comes to the latter, we are making sure that offensive cyber is an integral part of our arsenal. We now have the skills to expose cyber criminals, to hunt them down and to prosecute them. To respond in kind to any assault at a time of our choosing.”

As we’ve described before, hackers have been killed by American drone strikes in the past – although it’s likely they were singled out for attention for their other ISIS-related activities rather than the simple hacks they perpetrated.

One thing is clear – countries are no longer turning a blind eye to hacking. (and, for what it’s worth, countries around the world are not adverse to engaging in hacking themselves.)

It’s clear that the UK doesn’t just want to be seen to properly protecting its government and parliamentary IT systems, but also wants to send a strong message to its citizens that it is also doing the utmost to defend infrastructure targets such as the energy grid and air traffic control systems by taking pre-emptive action where possible.

But for all its bombastic bravado, the UK government would be wise to remember that it is incredibly difficult to accurately attribute an attack to a particular country, let alone determine whether it was backed by that country’s leaders or the action of lone “patriotic” hackers.

There is always the danger that an attack – whether it be by a drone strike or a retaliatory hack – could impact innocent parties rather than the intended targets, who might be many miles away or even on the other side of the world.

The last thing you would want is to attack an innocent party. Just imagine how a mistake like that might escalate into a situation that’s much much worse.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.

6 Comments

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  • This is quite destructive in many ways plus hackers can do their job without grouping with others. It's also quite a waste of resources too.

  • It seems clear to me that the most important systems for society's infrastructure need to have the tightest and best-deployed security measures. NHS, ATC, and all sorts of other systems need the finest and most expert security implementations. However, because of the way these systems are tendered when created, they end up with the cheapest and most traditional solutions, which are inherently inert and difficult to change with the times. The people in charge of these tenders (usually public sector workers under the thumbs of council and other government officials) are some of the least technically-savvy people on the planet (their kids often know far more than they do about these matters!). They always fail to realise that the the most popular, or most traditional solutions are very often not the best to deploy, if increased security is what is required. Systems have to be using the most up-to-date ciphers, transport mechanisms, and DDOS-resilient hardware and software. This is a full-time job since the security landscape is constantly changing. That requires a full-time security team working with the systems on a day-to-day basis. Currently, we have a tender system which is often deployed once, managed intermittently and patched only when things have already gone wrong. Ad-hoc teams with no previous experience of that particular system, are employed to sort out problems only after the systems have been hacked or have gone wrong. This cannot continue. The government has to spend LOTS of money on this, or else, one day, important infrastructures will be brought to their knees permanently.

  • So now you can kill someone you don't like by launching an attack from a spoofed IP. Great idea!

  • So hackers are to be turned into lumps of bloody flesh for – what, exactly? Defacing a website? Installing a RAT? or a keylogger? Or how about for producing a highly-destructive exploit that makes use of a Windows zero-day or two – let's call it, oh. I don't know, ETERNALBLUE.

    Michael Fallon is spouting dangerous nonsense. If he truly intends to launch drone strikes against hackers, he would soon find that some of those strikes would be launched against suburban semis in the Home Counties or East Anglia (just look at the list of recent arrests of British teenagers for breaking into highly-sensitive UK and US servers and extracting information). Many more drone strikes would have to be launched against targets in Russia and China. I somehow can't see that being popular in those countries. And of course, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander : we must accept that Russia and China have the right to launch their own military strikes against British hackers. World War Three, anyone?

  • "remember that it is incredibly difficult to accurately attribute an attack"

    Which is precisely why they might prefer the finality of a drone strike and body count, instead of the large uncertainties involved in actually trying to prove a case and prosecute it "legally", whatever that might mean.

    Killing innocent parties is actually a side benefit of drone strikes, from a government standpoint, rather than something to be avoided. You can't have a proper "war on terror" without a steady supply of newly recruited "terrorists", and what better recruitment incentive than revenge for having your family members killed or mained in a drone strike? It's a win-win for the war mongers and the permanent ruling structure.