Hostile states targeting essential infrastructure and services in Britain should be dealt with in the same way as any other attack against the nation, the UK Attorney General said today.
Speaking at the Chatham House think-tank on the topic of international law in cyber space, Jeremy Wright QC MP, said:
The targeting of essential medical facilities, the downing of civilian aircraft, the sabotage of nuclear power stations, are no less unlawful and no less deserving of a robust and legitimate response when they are undertaken by cyber means than when they are done by any other means.
The UK considers it is clear that cyber operations that result in, or present an imminent threat of, death and destruction on an equivalent scale to an armed attack will give rise to an inherent right to take action in self- defence, as recognised in Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Under the article, nations have the right of individual or collective self-defence. "The question is not whether or not international law applies, but rather how it applies and whether our current understanding is sufficient.
"What this means is that hostile actors cannot take action by cyber means without consequence, both in peacetime and in times of conflict."
Wright said the UK should name and shame foreign states that hire hackers to carry out cyber-attacks or interfere via the internet in national elections.
However, Blighty has already attributed previous malicious cyber activity – both publicly and privately – to the country concerned.
For example, the government blamed last year's WannaCry ransomware attack on North Korea. And along with 11 other countries, it pointed the finger at Russia for the NotPetya cyber-attack against Ukraine.
And the chief exec of the National Cyber Security Centre previously revealed hackers acting on behalf of Russia had targeted the UK's telecommunications, media and energy sectors.
"If more states become involved in the work of attribution then we can be more certain of the assessment," said Wright.
The UK government has said it is investing £1.9bn in cybersecurity.
Separately, the FBI is currently conducting an inquiry into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. ®