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Delving into the UK’s cybersecurity landscape

The UK’s approach to cybersecurity is defined by a diverse array of industries, ranging from government and financial services to energy, utilities and broader manufacturing. The geographical picture is varied – Aberdeen, located next to the North Sea, has a significant engineering, oil and gas sector, while London’s global positioning makes it home to the country’s financial sector. The South East provides significant support to the defence and government sectors, while Manchester is increasingly becoming a trendy hub for digital businesses.

But, when it comes to considering the UK’s threat landscape, we shouldn’t think solely in terms of geography. Rather, it’s shaped by sector, and how densely that sector sits within a region. Both Aberdeen and London house particularly lucrative industries with large scale infrastructure, making either location a particularly appealing, and vulnerable, target for hackers. Only last December, Aberdeen was hit with a major cyberattack targeted at Italian oil services firm Saipem, while financial services companies saw an explosion of data breaches in 2018, up fivefold compared to the previous year.

So, how can we fully comprehend the differences in the UK’s cybersecurity landscape, the level of defence required, and what forces are shaping its future?

Cyber-ecosystems operate at regional level

With different sectors clustering around particular parts of the UK, it makes sense that cyber-ecosystems operate more at regional level than national level. Cities become known for particular technologies and start-ups, and with less bureaucracy to deal with, stronger regional links are forged between local government, universities and the tech sector.

In particular, councils are increasingly conscious of the need to recognise regional vulnerabilities and prepare themselves accordingly against cyberattacks. This isn’t surprising, given an investigation last year found councils across the UK were targeted by nearly 100 million cyberattacks in five years, with more than a quarter of councils being breached.

One particular case was Copeland Borough Council in Cumbria, which hosts the largest nuclear site in Europe and is home to 80 per cent of the UK’s nuclear waste. Suffering an attack on its systems in 2017 at a cost of £2 million, the authority now uses cloud storage for key documents and investment in more up to date IT equipment. As well as this, compulsory training for staff has been introduced and internal networks redesigned in order to isolate any similar attack. Elsewhere, IT chiefs at Bristol City Council have recently embarked in a series of self-inflicted phishing attacks against the authority’s own staff in order to strengthen cybersecurity, following a report that revealed a high-level attack was likely.  

Universities are also doing their fair share to invest in cyber at a regional level – Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, Salford University and Lancaster University are combining expertise and research in a £6 million initiative to combat cyberthreats directed at the city’s SMEs. Abertay university in Dundee is leading a new £11.7 million project to establish a cybersecurity research and development centre, partnering with the Scottish Business Resilience Centre to develop a ‘cyberQuarter’ in the city. In Hereford, a £9 million centre for cybersecurity is underway after Herefordshire Council approved the launch of a new joint venture company with the University of Wolverhampton.

A well-connected ecosystem consisting of government and academic stakeholders, well linked with sector specific organisations, makes regions well placed to be agile and respond to developments in the market. This, is turn, provides the potential for improved innovation that can be capitalised on within regions, outside that of the larger UK government.

Differences in the defence landscape

Being in a different region doesn’t dramatically change the principles and practices around cybersecurity. When it comes to securing the cloud versus traditional systems, for example, security principles remain the same. But of course, when dealing with cloud services, you need to understand the marketplace and enabling services, so that you know how to apply practices to emerging technologies. In other words, it’s more about having your finger on the pulse about how the world is changing.

Part and parcel of this is keeping up with the pace at which the threat landscape is changing. With the proliferation of IoT and connectivity, the number of vulnerabilities in operating systems continues to rise, and solutions may only last months before hackers breach them. Research shows that technology is changing faster than the rate of adoption, and so for IT leaders reliant on connected networks, security must be a key consideration from the beginning. Councils working to develop investment in technology must ensure that those participating consider the risks involved in creating a robust network and the need to bake security into the process from an early stage.

Looking ahead

In a period of geopolitical flux, there are a number of factors which could potentially change the cyber-landscape. Changes will occur over time, but to what extent depends particularly on whether we move towards fragmented economies and diverge between data and networks globally. Regardless, instability and uncertainty in the medium to long term can add to the risk around cyber, as foreign threat actors look to take advantage.

As the cyber-landscape changes, tapping into the talent cycle at regional level is more important than ever. Diverse hiring, STEM initiatives and upskilling should be a top priority for all organisations, in order to ensure the best people are recruited into the industry.

Working with schools, universities and local governments to inspire young people to take an interest in technology is particularly effective. Code Clubs – after-school computing programmes for children – are a great way to teach basic logic and reasoning, preparing them for a digital future. With over 6,000 of these running up and down the UK and reaching some 100,000 children, the long-term impact of this is promising.

And encouraging digital literacy within school hours is just as key – at CGI, we recently partnered with Scottish Borders Council, Apple and XMA for a programme which will see £16 million invested over a ten-year period, in a world-class digital learning environment in Scottish Borders schools. While equipping young people, as well as teachers, with digital skills and knowledge is a crucial objective, the programme also has a wider economic objective to attract new businesses and employment opportunities in the region – other regions seeking to retain a young talent pool should consider a similar initiative.

The UK’s cyber-landscape is extremely varied and will continue to evolve not just because of global changes, but also because of the activities taking place within ecosystems operating at regional level. As sectors continue to thrive in and around particular regions, it’s crucial that local authorities and organisations within those regions work together to tackle those sector specific threats, especially as the threat landscape continues to develop and intensify. Equally, investment in talent pools is crucial to ensure the landscape continues to be defended effectively across the country.

Richard Holmes, Head of Cyber Security Services, CGI UKImage Credit: Den Rise / Shutterstock

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