Whitehall officials have revealed that work has begun on a range of offensive cyberweapons to add to its defensive capability.
It is understood that the Cabinet Office and the Cyber Security Operations Centre at GCHQ have taken the lead on the issue, and that in time there will be some input from the Ministry of Defence.
The MoD recently appointed General Jonathan Shaw from the Parachute Regiment to head a defence cyber-operations group. He told the Guardian that cyberspace represented "conflict without borders".
The armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, told the Guardian that "action in cyberspace will form part of the future battlefield", and that he now regards cyberweapons as "an integral part of the country's armoury". It is the first official acknowledgment that such a programme exists.
"We need a toolbox of capabilities and that's what we are currently developing," he said. "The circumstances and manner in which we would use them are broadly analogous to what we would do in any other domain."
Harvey added: "Cyber is a new domain but the rules and norms, the logic and the standards that operate in any other domain ... translate across into cyberspace. "I don't think that the existence of a new domain will, in itself, make us any more offensive than we are in any other domain. The legal conventions within which we operate are quite mature and well established."
Last year's national security strategy made cybersecurity a tier one priority, and an extra £650m was found for it in the strategic defence and security review (SDSR). Harvey said that digital networks were now "at the heart of our transport, power and communications systems", and this reliance had "brought the capacity for warfare to cyberspace".
"The consequences of a well planned, well executed attack against our digital infrastructure could be catastrophic ... With nuclear or biological weapons, the technical threshold is high. With cyber the finger hovering over the button could be anyone from a state to a student."
Though Harvey did not specify where future threats might come from, he warned that "it would be foolish to assume the west can always dictate the pace and direction of cybertechnology".
He highlighted how China, for one, is developing "modern militaries and modern technologies".
The foreign secretary, William Hague, told a security conference in Munich in February that the Foreign Office had repelled a cyberattack a month earlier from "a hostile state intelligence agency". Sources told the Guardian at the time that the attack was believed to originate from Chinese intelligence agencies.
This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.
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