UK formally unveils GCHQ’s offensive cyber-operation shop

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The U.K. has drummed up an offensive cyber-operations unit dedicated to disrupting British adversaries in cyberspace, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday.

The unit, known as the National Cyber Force (NCF), is capable of launching targeted campaigns against adversaries, from those that interfere with terrorists’ communications devices and cellphones to those that support British military operations, according to the announcement. The British government has been developing the force for approximately two years.

The NCF, which is expected to grow to 3,000 strong in the coming years, consists of personnel from the country’s signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as well as the Ministry of Defense, the country’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The force, which operates alongside GCHQ’s defensive cyber unit — the National Cyber Security Centre — currently only has a couple hundred staff.

The announcement coincides with efforts from British allies around the world to counter adversaries in cyberspace. The U.S. Department of Defense’s offensive cyber unit, Cyber Command, for instance, has worked to disrupt Russian government trolls’ access to the internet to prevent them from interfering in U.S. midterm elections in 2018. Just in the last month Cyber Command also conducted a cyber-operations against Iran to protect the 2020 presidential elections, according to The Washington Post.

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) has also recently run offensive cyber-operations against hackers taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic through spearphishing campaigns and other scams. The ASD’s activity has included disabling hackers’ infrastructure and preventing them from accessing stolen information, according to Australian Minister of Defense Linda Reynolds.

The U.K., for its part, has been running cyber-operations to tackle Russian disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine in recent months, according to The Times of London.

The announcement of U.K.’s offensive cyber force is not the first time Britain has acknowledged it uses offensive cyber-operations against adversaries. For instance, along with a slew of other European countries and the U.S., the U.K. has previously offered to lend its offensive cyber capabilities to NATO, as CyberScoop reported.

Just last month, Britain’s former national security adviser revealed the country had run an offensive cyber-operation targeting Moscow‘s “vulnerabilities.”

Like Cyber Command and ASD, GCHQ has also previously acknowledged the U.K. used cyber-operations to disrupt ISIS in the last several years. That operation was the first time the U.K. “systematically and persistently degraded an adversary’s online efforts as part of a wider military campaign,” according to GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming.

The confirmation of the NCF comes after a scathing assessment from the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees Britain’s spy agencies. The committee concluded in July that the U.K. has failed to conduct serious investigations to size up Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.K. politics.