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When British and US officials blamed Russian military hackers for last summer’s NotPetya ransomware attack, they were confirming long-held suspicions among western governments that Russia is stepping up its hostile cyber capabilities.

The announcement in February was consistent with the recent rhetoric of political and military leaders in the UK and the US as the two countries turn up the heat on Russia and other state adversaries they hold responsible for a string of aggressive cyber attacks. “I think we have been watching nation states grow steadily more aggressive in their use of cyber capabilities,” says John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cyber security company.

February brought a second Russia-related cyber security controversy. On February 16 an indictment filed by Robert Mueller, the US special counsel who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections, charged 13 individuals and three entities with conducting “information warfare” against America.

The work of the Internet Research Agency, a Saint Petersburg-based company accused of creating fake news and setting up phoney US social media accounts to attract online political audiences, may not be a cyber attack in the strictest sense. However, it fits a broader pattern of online warfare being waged by Russian president Vladimir Putin to disrupt the west and its institutions.

In December, the US and Britain came together to attribute last May’s WannaCry attack to the secretive North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un. Like NotPetya, WannaCry targeted computer operating systems, locking users’ machines unless they paid a ransom. The online attack, one of the most virulent yet, hit hundreds of thousands of computers in 150 countries but was most sharply felt in the UK, where a third of the country’s National Health Service trusts were affected.

Dot plot showing type of cyber incidents experienced by organisations over last 12 months

A former US intelligence chief is now citing India and Pakistan as countries raising the threat of international proliferation. “Other countries will soon start copying what the Russians have been doing.”

A recent report from US intelligence, seen by the Financial Times, sets out the cyber threats faced by western countries. In the briefing document, American spymasters describe cyber threats as the “new normal”.

86%

of UK executives experienced a cyber attack in 2017

It criticises Russia and North Korea but also highlights Iran and China as being “sensitive to international political events”, which can influence the level of malicious activity.

Greg Sim, chief executive of Glasswall Solutions, a cyber security company, says government and business must embrace innovation to keep up with the changing threat. “The techniques used are easily evading reactive technologies.”

Indeed, businesses need to pay attention as much as countries. A January survey by Kroll, a corporate intelligence company, showed that attacks on companies by random cyber criminals were top of its list of 14 types of incident, accounting for a third of attacks in 2017. Aggrieved ex-employees came second (28 per cent) and competitors were ranked third (23 per cent). Attacks by nation states sat in 13th place and accounted for only 10 per cent of cyber hostility.

The question of how to respond to such threats is made all the more pertinent when one considers the US and its allies are battling adversaries who may be armed with cyber tools stolen from American intelligence agencies the NSA and CIA.

Chart showing perpetrators of cyber attacks

According to cyber specialists, both WannaCry and NotPetya were developed from the American cyber espionage tools EternalBlue and DoublePulsar, first leaked by a hacking group called the Shadow Brokers in early 2017.

A report by Crowdstrike, a cyber security technology company, published at the end of February, showed that the volume and intensity of cyber attacks “hit new highs” in 2017 as the overall level of sophistication experienced a “meteoric rise”. The report said there was a blurring of the lines between hostile state attacks and more widespread criminal activity. “If you think about cyber, a lot of the techniques we are seeing were born out of nation-state attacks,” says George Kurz, co-founder and chief executive of Crowdstrike.

28%

of attacks were by ex-employees, according to the Kroll report

The Kroll survey showed that ecrime is the biggest worry for corporate executives. A total of 86 per cent of executives said they had experienced a cyber attack in the past year. The survey also reported that 36 per cent of companies had been affected by a virus or worm attack, an increase of 3 percentage points since 2016; a third had suffered an email-based phishing attack; 27 per cent had suffered a data breach; and 25 per cent were affected by data deletion.

In the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ, has been taking steps to protect public bodies and companies. It has been advising them on how to deal with these lower-level criminal attacks that, it says, “affect the majority of people, the majority of the time”. “There is much hyperbole about the capabilities of cyber actors,” says Ian Levy, NCSC’s technical director. “Certainly, some nation states invest huge sums of money and significant highly skilled resources in their cyber programmes and use those for various things that are detrimental to the interests of the UK.

“However, the vast majority of people in the UK will not be directly harmed by these actors,” he says. “They are more likely to fall victim to cyber crime.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.