During a keynote address at the CYBERUK 2021 online event, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab explained the UK’s vision to become a global leader in cyberspace through promoting safety and liberal values in technology.
Raab began by celebrating the UK’s strong pedigree in science and technology, which gives the country a “great foundation” to take on this mantle. He added that the UK tech sector has been a major source for good in the world, for example helping boost economic activity in Africa and Asia through initiatives such as providing access to mobile phones.
However, Raab said that “we do need to acknowledge there is a darker side” in tech, which is characterized by “the clash of values” between countries whose values are based on openness and democracy and those that promote authoritarianism.
He noted: “We can see this clash between authoritarian and democratic states playing out very directly right now in cyberspace.” Raab outlined how nations like North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China are using “digital tech to sabotage and to steal, or to control and censor.”
There are numerous examples of state-sponsored actors engaging in activities that are having a major impact on critical services and infrastructure, including allegedly with the recent ransomware attack on the US’s largest fuel pipeline, and the frequent targeting of COVID-19 vaccine development and supply chain.
Raab also revealed that in March this year, around 80 different schools, colleges, and universities in the UK were hit by ransomware attacks, forcing some to delay their reopening following the easing of lockdown.
Additionally, he outlined how democracy has become a prime target for state-sponsored actors, with elections in the Western world hit by misinformation online.
Amid this backdrop, “we’ve got to adapt to that threat, not just to defend our financial interests, but to defend our way of life,” commented Raab. He set out three ways the UK government is looking to do so. Firstly, through building up domestic cyber-defenses, which “is starting to pay off, we’re getting better at detecting, disrupting, and deterring our enemies.” The second is the continued development of offensive cyber-capabilities, as highlighted by the creation of the National Cyber Force. This is designed to disrupt the activities of cyber-gangs as well as be used for military purposes. Raab stated: “We will continue to use these capabilities where necessary, in a proportionate way and in line with international law.”
The third way is a global approach, working with like-minded nations to develop a cyberspace that is “free, open, peaceful, and secure, and which benefits all countries and all people.” This necessitates clarifying and enforcing international laws in cyberspace, such as repercussions for those nations that continually launch attacks.
Raab explained that as well as working with traditional partners, the UK and its allies must look “to win the hearts and minds across the world” for this vision for cyberspace, especially nations in the poorest regions of the world, preventing countries like China and Russia from “filling the multilateral vacuum.” With this in mind, Raab announced a £22m commitment in new funding to support cyber capacity in these vulnerable countries, “particularly in Africa and the Indo-Pacific.”
He concluded by saying: “As global Britain, we’ve got to be agile—we’ve got to work with traditional partners but also new partners.”