The UK could be hit by a “9/11” style cyber attack if security services underestimate the “magnitude of the threat” they face, a senior US intelligence chief has said.
Jen Easterly, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, warned “history may repeat itself” unless governments continually adapt to the changing nature of warfare.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is the US’s cyber defence force, with a role broadly similar to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in the UK.
Mrs Easterly served in the US military for two decades and was deployed to Baghdad as the chief of the “cryptologic services” arm of the National Security Agency.
Speaking at the annual CyberUK conference via videolink, she said that a “failure to imagine” possible new methods of attack could lead to devastating consequences.
Discussing 9/11, she said: “We did not grasp the magnitude of the threat that had grown for some considerable time.
“This was a failure of policing, a failure of management capability but above all, a failure of imagination…
“While history may not repeat itself, it surely does… We cannot afford to suffer another colossal failure of imagination.
“The stakes in the decade ahead could not be any higher – particularly, for those of us in technology and cyber security.”
It comes after a warning from GCHQ on Tuesday that scammers impersonated the head of the NCSC in a brazen fraud attempt involving a fake £5 million heist.
Next decade crucial for future of democratic nations
Mrs Easterly added that, in her view, “it was not an exaggeration” to say that the next ten years would determine whether the governments of the “post WWII liberal order” will survive.
She said a failure to adapt and “imagine” what new and emerging threats from state actors and lone wolves would look like, could be fatal for countries around the world.
She continued: “Think of how much has changed in our world as a result of [new technology] which sprang from the imagination of some of our nation’s most talented groups.
“What have we learned about the power and the misuse of technology during that time?
“The emerging technology of today will define the shape of the world tomorrow.
“It’s not an exaggeration to assert the next 10 years truly determine whether the liberal world order post World War Two period will survive, or more optimistically, whether we, as like minded democratic nations, will continue to thrive.”
Ransomware attacks pose ‘greatest threat’
Also speaking at the conference in Newport, was Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
He warned that the greatest danger the UK currently faced came from large scale ransomware attacks.
He said: “The greatest cyber threat to the UK – one now deemed severe enough to pose a national security threat – is from ransomware attacks.
“Should the UK face an attack on the scale previously inflicted on Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure sites, businesses and the public should not expect to receive advance warning.
“Preparedness is therefore essential. And our defences must be in place: ready for whatever comes in whatever way.”
On Wednesday, the Government announced that Russia was behind a cyber attack which caused chaos across Europe hours before it invaded Ukraine.
Kremlin cyber spies hacked a Viasat communication satellite intending to target the Ukrainian military but also knocking thousands of users offline including a wind farm in Germany.