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Aerial shot of GCHQ's main building. Courtesy of arpingstone/Wikimedia

The UK's National Cyber Security Strategy Beyond 2021: The International Dimension

Danny Steed
Commentary, 2 April 2019
Cyber, UK, Intelligence, Technology, Europe
Building the next cyber security strategy must go beyond domestic resilience to address international dynamics. And doing so will require an articulation of a vision about what kind of cyberspace it tries to shape worldwide.

With the UK midway through its second National Cyber Security Programme, focus now needs to consider future strategy beyond the conclusion of the current cycle in 2021. Clearly much has been achieved in the UK this decade, from the ever-widening network of GCHQ-accredited Academic Centres of Excellence (ACE) across the country, a gradual redressement of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in schools, through to the organisational innovation in setting up the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). The UK has certainly not rested on its laurels in addressing cyber security at the national level.

Despite these strides, however, this overwhelmingly domestic focus has left a critical gap that now needs to be addressed: the international arena. With the structures for UK domestic resilience now established and gradually maturing, it is crucial that the UK does not fall into the trap of thinking ‘mission accomplished’. It is time to focus beyond UK shores once more and contribute to shaping the normative future of global cyber security. The global WannaCry attack of 2017 should serve to reveal a reality not to be ignored; that UK resilience – no matter how well constructed – can only offer a reactive ‘band aid’ in a global environment where cybercrime remains rampant and international law is not respected. That environment cannot be allowed to develop without the influence of leading democracies.

To that end, a series of questions should help shape the agenda for an international approach to the next cyber security strategy, chief among them being ‘in what ways can the UK better influence norms and rules in cyberspace?’ While it is excellent to have a developing pipeline of STEM talent to plug the skills gap across cyber security, the professionals of tomorrow will be overrun if the international environment is either lawless or shaped by fundamentally authoritarian norms. Serious and concerted political support to efforts like the UN Groups of Government Experts (GGE) is essential to begin rebuilding momentum on dialogue such as the finding the rules of the road initiative championed by then Foreign Secretary William Hague at the 2011 Munich Security Conference. Alignment with the efforts of NATO to find suitably applicable international law would be another fruitful avenue of not only finding consensus, but working within existing alliance frameworks. Consensus should very much be built among allies to strengthen any hand at future UN GGE processes. The platforms to advance the agenda already exist; what is missing is ‘bandwidth’ at the top level of British politics to contribute as needed.

The Missing Dimension in UK Cyber – Our Values

A critical point should be established in the development of cyber security strategy, by refocusing attention on the values that were set out in the 2011–15 strategy. For the UK to meaningfully contribute in shaping norms, it must promote itself both tangibly through the export of technical expertise and products, but also lead the way in establishing a standard for what behaviour a liberal democracy abides by and expects in cyberspace.

What should be quite clear by this stage of the country’s second cyber security programme is that the vast majority of the UK population cannot be reasonably expected to understand the technical aspects of cyber security, any more than drivers should be expected to have mechanical knowledge of the car their family owns. What can be well understood however, are the rights and values that behaviour is conditioned by, and how those values and rights are articulated globally. Put simply, the UK needs to articulate both what it stands for and against in cyberspace, and match rhetoric with firm actions to shape normative development.

Shaping the international agenda for cyberspace should in the next strategy be as much about aligning the rights of citizens based on core values – the balance between privacy and security paramount among them – as it should be centred on technical requirements such as ‘secure by design’ for consumers of new tech products. What rights and values does a liberal democratic society subscribe to in the Information Age? To focus on technology without also focusing on the rights of the citizenry risks ceding the political ground entirely to a competing political position.

The New Great Game – The Threat from Cyber Sovereignty

While it may seem an indulgence to focus on norms and not purely on technology, the reasoning lies not in pure abstraction, but in the recognition that the liberal view is under direct challenge from a competing political belief set, Cyber Sovereignty. Championed by Russia and China, this view directly disputes the multi-stakeholder model that has so far been effective in governing cyberspace, calling instead for direct and exclusive management of cyberspace by nation states.

This viewpoint poses a direct threat to the type of cyberspace that was not only originally created by liberal states and underpinned by liberal values, but also any future cyberspace. A cyberspace that seeks to preserve open access to information and be used as a tool not only of economic prosperity but also of human enrichment through connection, education, creativity and expression is now under severe challenge by other political actors; the next cyber security strategy needs to acknowledge not simply a state of uncertainty – as it did in 2011 – but that the liberal view for cyberspace is now undoubtedly under threat.

For a cyber security strategy beyond 2021 to be fit for purpose necessitates not only building on the resiliency efforts established this decade, it will also require a recognition of the threat that Cyber Sovereignty poses to the stability of cyberspace itself. Tackling this international dynamic could well prove the biggest dynamic to reconcile in UK policy circles.

Next Steps and Challenges

Two key challenges must be navigated as the next steps in building towards a 2021 cyber security strategy: Brexit; and strategic alignment. In the first instance, Brexit remains the known unknown in the short term, an issue really only because of its uncertainty. One certainty that can be established however is that cyber security remains important regardless of Brexit, and thinking can afford to progress in an almost agnostic manner. When the last strategy was written the idea of a Brexit referendum was not even a political likelihood, the next one must be prepared without worrying about how Brexit may conclude.

This leaves the core challenge of establishing broad strategic alignment. Any future strategy needs to be assessed against a clear political vision for what the UK wants to achieve globally, based on a foundational value set. Strategy is instrumental in nature, helping to turn political vision into reality; UK political leaders must specify an international political vision against which a cyber security strategy can orient its mission effectively. Without this broad vision underwritten by clear values, the next cyber security strategy risks becoming merely a budgetary exercise that fails to shape the international dynamics framing the development of cyber security for decades to come.

Danny Steed is Head of Strategy at ReSolve Cyber. His next book, The Politics and Technology of Cyberspace, will be released by Routledge in 2019.

BANNER IMAGE: Aerial shot of GCHQ's main building. Courtesy of arpingstone/Wikimedia

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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