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Cyber security – challenge or opportunity?

Posted on 08/11/2016

Data is a commodity, and like intellectual property, it can be shared, sold and indeed stolen. There is a need to balance security with privacy and this is all about trust.

Data, and it's security, presents many issues for us to be wary of but also provides much scope for innovation.

The term cyber was first used decades ago in the movies to depict a future reality where computers ruled the world. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched anymore – if you believe the hype regarding machine learning and artificial intelligence – but why, so it seems, is everyone talking about cyber security?

We are becoming ever more dependent on our smartphones and electronic devices for online services. The world went ‘digital’ and then cloud computing came along and as a species we have since become dependent on access to the internet as a basic human need like fresh running water ( see Maslow’s hierarchy of “basic human needs” ). OK, maybe not, but what happens when the services, which we are dependent on, are taken offline? We would lose access to Facebook and Twitter, heaven forbid, but we could also be denied access to food, water and power, which could result quickly in civil unrest (e.g. some incidents of civil disobedience were reported when 400,000 people were without fresh water for 21 days during the 2007 Gloucestershire floods).

Cyber security is an emotive subject, rightly so, as personal data is held on huge server farms situated all over the world (owned by the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft etc). Data is a commodity, and like intellectual property, it can be shared, sold and indeed stolen. There is a need to balance security with privacy and this is all about trust – how much do you trust a company to keep your data safe? What about the government? But it’s not just about data. ‘Cyber attack’ is a term usually reserved for actions designed to create an industrial effect which, of course, is different to stealing information. Such actions can affect critical national infrastructure and public safety. Either way, cyber crimes and acts of terrorism can go undetected. The victims will not know it’s happening until too late and it can be very difficult to track the culprit(s). Indeed, the more sophisticated attacks are designed this way, of which the best known example is probably the stuxnet worm, which back in June 2010 secretly took control of industrial machinery at various industrial sites in Iran, including a secret uranium-enrichment plant.

So what are the challenges and opportunities? The key challenge is that with all the prevalent online technology and our growing dependence on it, not to mention the eruption of the ‘Internet of Things’, our society is growing more vulnerable than ever to an attack from cyber space. This is a huge challenge – it’s not just a homeland security issue because any organisation that holds data or IP is potentially a target. So how is it possible for the UK to protect its citizens and its economy from malicious cyber activity? Clearly there is an opportunity here for big companies, SMEs and inventors to work with the research supply base in academia to pull through the cyber capability that meets these tough challenges and this requires working across all the vertical industries. Cyber security affects all industrial markets.

At the KTN, within the Defence and Security community we work across our network of communities to raise awareness of the major cyber security challenges and opportunities. We also work with: companies in the sector to understand their challenges and help them access world class research and commercial and funding opportunities; government stakeholders to understand the top level homeland security and defence challenges. We also work with colleagues at the KTN’s ICT community to understand the pipeline of new and emerging underpinning technologies that will underpin our security in cyberspace. We aim to influence fundamental research so that it delivers commercially successful projects and services that will tackle the big cyber security societal challenges. We also recognise that exciting and enabling technologies, such as driverless cars and smart cities, provide us with a rich array of cyber security challenges for the future. Needless to say, we will be working closely with the Transport, Energy, Built Environment and Digital Economy KTN communities so that we can identify common challenges, connect like-minded people and let them innovate. Only by constantly innovating to stay one step ahead of the cyber ‘enemy’, can we keep public safety and the growth of the UK economy firmly at the top of our agenda