GCHQ boss calls out Russia for 'industrial scale disinformation'

Kremlin 'blurring boundaries between criminal and state activity' – director

GCHQ‬ boss Jeremy Fleming has hailed the success of a cyber-offensive against ISIS last year and warned of the growing threat posed by Russia.

During a wide-ranging speech at the CyberUK conference in Manchester on Thursday morning, Fleming said a cyber operation last year had disrupted ISIS's [Daesh] communications.

In 2017 there were times when Daesh found it almost impossible to spread their hate online, to use their normal channels to spread their rhetoric, or trust their publications

"GCHQ, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, has conducted a major offensive cyber campaign against Daesh," Fleming said.

"These operations have made a significant contribution to coalition efforts to suppress Daesh propaganda, hindered their ability to coordinate attacks, and protected coalition forces on the battlefield."

"In 2017 there were times when Daesh found it almost impossible to spread their hate online, to use their normal channels to spread their rhetoric, or trust their publications," he added.

Fleming said cyber is only one part of the wider international response, adding this is the "first time the UK has systematically and persistently degraded an adversary’s online efforts as part of a wider military campaign".

Fleming hinted similar tactics, now proven, might be used against other (unnamed) potential aggressors. "It worked against Daesh and it can work against other national security challenges too," he said.

Options go beyond simple denial of service onto operations that "perhaps even destroy equipment or networks" but this would only be done in accordance with international law and proportionate to threats posed, he said. Fleming made no mention of using signals intelligence to direct drone strikes by tracking terrorist's phones, tactics which were previously reported to have been used in operations against high profile jihadis.

During his first public speech, the GCHQ director also spoke at length about the heightened threat posed by an "old foe", Russia.

The Kremlin is "blurring the boundaries between criminal and state activity" and not playing by international norms, Fleming told delegates. This goes beyond the nerve agent attack against Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, blamed by UK authorities as Russian work, that has resulted in a diplomatic crisis and the worsening of Anglo-Soviet relations.

"Whether that’s NotPetya against the Ukraine’s financial, energy and government sectors, which eventually spread across the world, or the use of industrial scale disinformation to sway public opinion – they’re not playing to the same rules," he said.

The UK has collected evidence on Russia for around two decades, monitoring a growing cyber threat, said Fleming. GCHQ’s expertise is likely to be in increasing demand, he added.

Earlier this week GCHQ announced plans to open a new GCHQ site in Manchester, creating hundreds of jobs in the process. The new site, to be opened next year, will work with GCHQ's main base in Cheltenham and existing satellite offices in Bude, Cornwall and Scarborough, Yorkshire in delivering on GCHQ's overall mission.

"Criminals and hostile states are 'early adopters' of tech so the authorities must combat that threat to maintain a 'safer digital Britain'," Fleming said.

"Hostile states, terrorists and criminals are emboldened and assisted by technology. They’re early adopters of new products and services, investing heavily in strategies and tactics to further their causes."

Recruitment is a key challenge and GCHQ is developing a strategy to manage the cyber skills gap.

"We need to offer more flexible careers, where individuals can more easily work at lower levels of classification, can pursue their interests in the private sector and can bring the best of that back into GCHQ," Fleming claimed.

"This means changing the perception of a career in the intelligence community so that more men and women from every part of society can imagine themselves thriving in the intelligence and security world.

"Yes, for some of our roles we’ll continue to need those with a Doctorate in Mathematics or Computer Science, but we also need people straight from school or those who want a career change. People who can lead and make decisions," he concluded.


During his speech Fleming made no mention of cryptography aside from a single reference to cryptocurrencies in the context of ransomware. ®

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