#CYBERUK23: Five Takeaways From the NCSC Conference on the UK's Cyber Strategy

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Make the UK the safest place in the digital world.This motto was repeated relentlessly by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) representatives during the CYBERUK 2023 conference that took place in Belfast on April 19-20, 2023.

The backdrop of the event was the UK’s new National Cyber Strategy, finalized in December 2022, and the updated Integrated Review of the government's security, defense, development and foreign policy priorities, published in March.

CYBERUK was an opportunity for the NCSC to outline the measures the country is committed to strengthening the UK’s cyber defense and resilience.

Here is Infosecurity’s roundup of the five highlights of the event.

1. Pathways and GovAssure

During CYBERUK 2023, the UK government gave updates on the future of some of the NCSC’s tools for businesses, such as Active Cyber Defence, a range of interventions and services aimed at minimizing the high-volume commodity attacks, and the Assured Industry Services, a catalog of 400 companies accredited to work on behalf of the NCSC.

The agency also unveiled its pilot project Pathways. The initiative has been under testing for the last six months by the NCSC’s partner IASME Consortium. It will provide certified organizations a new way to acquire a Cyber Essential Plus certification, the highest form delivered by the NCSC. The Pathways approach tests an organization’s technical controls against a specially produced internet-facing threat scenario.

The NCSC’s CEO Lindy Cameron admitted that progress still needed to be made for some UK businesses to become more cyber resilient. “We’re ahead of the curve, but we need to implement a change at a national level, which hasn’t happened across all sectors yet,” she said during a press conference.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden also announced during his CYBERUK introduction speech the launch of GovAssure, a new requirement for all government departments to go through annual independent, more robust security audits based on the guidelines set out in the NCSC’s Cyber Assessment Framework.

Read more: UK Strengthens Cybersecurity Audits for Government Agencies

2. State-Aligned Groups Targeting British Critical Infrastructure

The NCSC released a warning on the growing threat to UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI) posed by “state-aligned” Russian groups, the announcement came as the CYBERUK was getting started in Belfast on April 19.

This is the first time UK officials have recognized the emergence of ideologically motivated adversaries who are not necessarily state-sponsored but still act in line with a country’s interests.

The alert warned that the groups are "less predictable" because they are "not subject to formal state control.”

“Why are we sharing this alert on UK's CNI now? There have been cyber events in the last couple of months that made us think we needed to do it. But, quite frankly, we are not ready to call out anyone at the moment,” NCSC’s Paul Chichester, director of operations, said during a press conference said in a press conference.

Cameron added during her keynote speech that the UK needs to do more to protect its infrastructure from cyber threats. “If the UK is to be the safest place to live and work online, then resilience to all threats, whether they come from nation states or cyber criminals, [..] must urgently move to the top of our investment shopping list."

Read more: NCSC Warns of Destructive Russian Attacks on Critical Infrastructure

3. Public and Private Partnerships

One of the main lessons from the cyber conflict in Ukraine is the private sector’s significant role in helping Ukrainian organizations remediate attacks and protect their data, Chichester, said. “The likes of Microsoft and Amazon, for instance, have been key enablers of Ukraine’s cyber response to Russian cyber-attacks and its resilience,” he insisted.

The UK needs to take a page out of Ukraine's book and “work more with cybersecurity vendors and initiate public and private partnerships,” Cameron added.

4. Enhanced International Collaboration

Another lesson from Ukraine’s cyber response, Cameron said, was the close collaboration between ally countries. “I am really proud of the role the NCSC played, in conjunction with [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] FCDO and our allies, in supporting the Ukrainians’ staunch cyber defence in the face of Russian hostility.”

This is particularly true now that some adversaries have shifted from attacking Ukraine solely to targeting its allies, Dowden added.

However, Cameron indicated that there is more to be done and that the UK will collaborate more with Ukraine, the US and other allies in cyberspace.

Read more: NCSC Urges International Collaboration to Build Cyber Resilience

5. ‘Responsible Behavior’ on the Use of Hacking Tools

International collaboration is also at the core of the fight against the growing threat posed by the ‘irresponsible' use of commercial hacking tools such as spyware and hacking-for-hire services – on which the NCSC published a new assessment on April 19.

A joint effort between 11 countries, including the UK, was launched in March.

Jonathon Ellison, NCSC director of resilience and future tech, gave more details about in objectives: “We’re working with our partners to build a global consensus on what we define as responsible behavior’ when it comes to the use of spyware,” he said.

However, Ellison and other NCSC representatives admitted that this joint statement was only the beginning and that “there is still quite a lot of work to be done to provide a joint comprehensive response.”

Read more: Threat Posed by 'Irresponsible' Use of Commercial Hacking Tools Increasing, NCSC Warns

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