Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced he’ll double funding to strengthen the U.K.’s cyber defenses, while refusing to confirm that budget cuts to be announced next week would spare Britain’s police forces, as Europe braces for further attacks from Islamist extremists.
The U.K. will spend 1.9 billion pounds ($2.9 billion) over five years countering Islamic State’s use of the Internet for planning, propaganda and online attacks, Osborne said on Tuesday in a speech at Government Communications Headquarters, the U.K. communications-intelligence agency. He also announced the development of an “offensive” capability so Britain can counter-attack against hackers, terrorists, criminals and rogue states.
Osborne didn’t extend this commitment, when pressed twice by reporters after the speech, to a guarantee that the Home Office policing budget would be protected from a range of cuts to be announced in his spending review on Nov. 25. More than half of government departments, including the Home Office, have yet to agree on savings with the Treasury.
“We are determined as a government to protect national security,” Osborne said in answer to questions after his speech in Cheltenham, western England. As he defended his spending cuts, he said there’s “no need to choose between sound public finances and great public services” and that this would be the basis of next week’s review.
Pressed on possible police spending cuts by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn in an exchange in the House of Commons in London Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government “protected counter-terrorism policing budgets throughout the last Parliament and we’re going to do that through this Parliament,” which runs until 2020.
Recent attacks, including the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt and the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, both claimed by Islamic State, have led western governments to step up preparations for a long fight against terrorism. Tuesday’s announcement came a day after Cameron pledged to hire 1,900 new spies.
“It is right that we choose to invest in our cyber defenses even at a time when we must cut other budgets,” Osborne said in his speech. “We need those who would harm us to know that we will defend ourselves robustly. And that we have the means to do so.”
Osborne said seven government departments, including energy and work and pensions, and nine small government agencies have agreed to a cumulative reduction of their budgets of 21 percent in real terms over the next four years as part of the spending review. He said last week that four other ministries had accepted cuts of about 30 percent. Announcements on the budgets of nine other departments are still outstanding.
London’s most senior police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, said Tuesday morning that the capital will add armed police and armored-response vehicles in the wake of the Paris attacks. He also announced plans to create a mobile reserve to back up the predominately unarmed force should a Paris-style terror attack take place in the city.
“I am determined that we are well-prepared should anything like that happen here,” Hogan-Howe told LBC radio. “I’ve got a good idea how that can be achieved, and over the next few weeks as I’ve worked all that detail out, we will be announcing it.”
Osborne said security and cyber protection will be the focus of his spending review on Nov. 25, warning that Britain must be prepared for “hybrid conflicts” played out on the internet as well as on the ground. GCHQ is monitoring threats against 450 companies, he said.
“When the internet was first created, it was built on trust; that trust, appropriate inside a community of scholars, is not merited in a world with hostile powers, criminals and terrorists,” Osborne said. “We are not winning as often as we need to against those who would hurt us in cyber space.”
GCHQ will work with the Ministry of Defence to develop tools and techniques to counter-attack over the internet, Osborne said.
Britain’s intelligence agencies currently employ about 12,700 staff, split between MI5, which handles domestic security, MI6, responsible for overseas intelligence, and GCHQ, which monitors communications. The U.K. will also double spending on aviation security, including hiring staff to assess security at foreign airports.
The National Cyber Security Plan will focus on protecting the U.K. from the increasing threat of online attacks against business, infrastructure and individuals, as well as strengthening its capability as a cyber economy, Osborne said. Along with the cyber task force based in Cheltenham, a team will look at cooperation by Internet service providers to divert malware attacks and a renewed crackdown on cyber criminals.
“Before the dreadful events of the weekend, we had already indicated that we would be increasing substantially the resources we dedicate to countering the terrorist threat,” the chancellor said. “Defending our citizens from hostile powers, criminals or terrorists, the internet represents a critical axis of potential vulnerability. From our banks to our cars, our military to our schools, whatever is online is also a target.”
–With assistance from Thomas Penny
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