The UK has world-class strengths in cyber security and intelligence, but shortfalls in its skilled cyber workforce, reports parliamentary briefing by Ashok Kumar Fellow
Upskilling and growing the specialist cybersecurity workforce, and increasing the resilience of critical infrastructure, are two of the focus areas highlighted in a report by the 2021 Ashok Kumar Fellow.
University of Sheffield chemical engineering postgraduate student Amber Keegan produced the briefing note for policymakers after being awarded the Ashok Kumar Fellowship in 2021 by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the Materials Processing Institute and the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). It provides a three-month placement working in POST to inform scrutiny and debate within UK Parliament.
Keegan’s briefing note (POSTnote), States’ use of cyber operations, was the resulting product of the fellowship where she reviewed literature and interviewed experts from across academia, industry, government and the third sector. It explores how and why states use cyber operations against other nations, and the threats that these activities pose to the UK. The published briefing note comes as parliament considers the National Security Bill, and the UK Government reviews the Computer Misuse Act – the UK’s main piece of legislation regarding computer-dependent crime.
The briefing note highlights that the number and sophistication of cyber-attacks on the UK are increasing. It reports that in 2020/21, the National Cyber Security Centre (NSCS) dealt with 777 incidents (from non-state, as well as state, attackers) – a 30% rise in four years. While the Home Office says that UK industry, academia, defence and business sectors are also routinely targeted by foreign states.
The POSTnote reports findings from a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which states that the UK has world-class strengths in cyber security and cyber intelligence, and notes that the UK Government has set out plans for protecting and promoting UK interests in cyberspace in the National Cyber Strategy 2022. This includes £114m of extra funding for the National Cyber Security Programme to help deliver the strategy over the next three years.
Keegan’s report highlighted the following approaches to help address the issues:
- upskilling and growing the specialist cyber security workforce – UK cyber security workforce grew by around 50% from 2018 to 2022, but demand for skills still outstrips supply. Plus, an estimated 51% of UK businesses have a basic skills gap.
- improving basic cyber security standards – Microsoft estimates that basic cyber security practices could prevent 98% of attacks, but they will not stop more sophisticated attacks. Existing activities by the UK Government – such as the National Security Bill and Review of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 – may aid improvements.
- increasing the resilience of critical national infrastructure (CNI) – in 2018, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy highlighted UK CNI cyber security weaknesses including supply chain vulnerabilities, a lack of political leadership, and a skills shortage.
- developing the UK’s ability to conduct offensive cyber operations (OCOs) – this is defined as the adding, deleting or manipulating of data on systems or networks to deliver a physical, virtual or cognitive effect (for example, changing opinions). According to the UK Government, opportunities for using OCOs could include to degrade adversary weapons systems, disable terrorist communications and counter state disinformation.
- developing digital technologies and standards – improvements could be made by facilitating the sharing of knowledge and best practice, and providing a basis for comparing the security of different products. The National Cyber Strategy 2022 aims to reduce UK reliance on non-allied states for digital technologies, to avoid security risks.
Keegan will be explaining more on her report in a free webinar on 24 November, which chemical engineers and those interested in cyber operations are being encouraged to attend. She will also share her learnings of undertaking the fellowship.
“The POST Fellowship was an incredible experience and has shown me just how widely the chemical engineering skillset can be applied. It was the engineering skills of problem solving, attention to detail and analytical thinking that helped me quickly understand a complex new topic and draw out key messages. I would encourage anyone who loves engineering and is interested in exploring more about how it can impact society to apply for a POST Fellowship.”
Lydia Harriss, POST, who supervised Keegan during her fellowship, added:
“It’s been a pleasure working with Amber, who has done a fantastic job of researching and synthesising this complex and politically sensitive subject. Her POSTnote will be available to select committees, individual parliamentarians and the public. It provides a great overview of the topic that will inform debate and Parliament’s scrutiny of Government.”
The Ashok Kumar Fellowship is named in memory of Dr Ashok Kumar, who was the only chemical engineer serving in Parliament as Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, at the time of his sudden death in 2010.
The Ashok Kumar Fellowship was launched shortly afterwards. Dr Kumar, who was a Fellow of IChemE, worked as a research scientist for British Steel Corporation, a forerunner of the Materials Processing Institute, from 1985 to 1997.
Read more about the Ashok Kumar Fellowship and register for the webinar at www.icheme.org/ashok.
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