Introducing The Alert

We are excited to launch The Alert, the blog of the Offensive Cyber Working Group (OCWG).  

The Offensive Cyber Working Group (OCWG) is an academia-led initiative to bring together experts from across academia, policy and the private sector to examine the conceptual, policy and practical implications of offensive cyber activity in the current UK landscape. 

The objective of the OCWG’s blog, The Alert, is to encourage public debate on offensive cyber. The blog will operate as a space for an open and critical reflection about the different ways in which offensive cyber is taking shape in the UK and around the world. 

Why the name?  

We think offensive cyber is something that people need to be talking about. Like an alert on social media, we want this blog to draw attention to something important. We’ll also use this blog to draw attention to upcoming events and to highlight news stories related to offensive cyber. We hope that The Alert will be a useful resource for people working in this area.  

The analogy to social media makes sense in another way – we want this platform to be a place for debate and discussion (although, unlike on social media, we hope that debate will always be informed and constructive). Political, strategic, legal, and ethical frameworks for offensive cyber are rapidly evolving around the world. The language and the theoretical frameworks that shape our understanding of offensive cyber are similarly dynamic and contested. These issues need to be actively debated, or we will end up talking past each other. The Alert provides another forum for these debates.  

The name The Alert also has deeper historical resonance. The Alert was the name of the ship that severed submarine telecommunication cables in the Channel following the British declaration of war on Germany in 1914. Was this an early example of offensive cyber? Or is there something fundamentally different about competition and conflict in the digital age? Regardless of your view on those questions, we think that it is valuable to view offensive cyber in a broader historical context, the better to understand both the continuities and discontinuities that make this such an important topic.  

Looking ahead 

It is an exciting time to be working on offensive cyber. We will use this blog to share information about the work of the OCWG, as well as details of upcoming seminars and workshops. The first of those announcements will come out later this week – keep an eye on this blog and follow the OCWG on Twitter.     

We want to hear from you. If you have questions or comments, feel free to get in touch with us at alert@offensivecyber.org. We welcome contributions to this blog from scholars, practitioners, and other experts on a range of topics related to offensive cyber.   

This could include: 

  • Policy implications of offensive cyber  
  • New theoretical approaches  
  • National approaches to offensive cyber (UK and all other countries are welcome) 
  • Multi-stakeholder perspectives on offensive cyber

Contributions could take the form of short-form articles (600-1,000 words), longer debates between two contributing authors, or shorter commentary on emerging stories. If it touches on offensive cyber, we want to hear about it. 

New Report – The National Cyber Force that Britain Needs?

Read the Report here

Members of the Offensive Cyber Working Group, with King’s College London, have today released a new report which argues that the success of the new UK National Cyber Force (NCF) will be determined by the quality of the leadership, strategy, structures and processes that shape its growth and operational use.

As part of the OCWG’s commitment to advancing debate on offensive cyber in the UK and beyond, this report is one step in understanding how offensive cyber will be organised within the UK through the NCF. This builds upon other activity by the OCWG, including its November 2020 Scoping Workshop Report and its new ‘Global Challenges in Offensive Cyber’ Seminar Series.

Key Findings:

  • Ambitions for the NCF should be realistic. Offensive cyber is but one of several components of cyber strategy. The starting point for a responsible, “democratic cyber power” should include improved cyber security and resilience.
  • The NCF has a wide variety of possible missions, from countering state threats, terrorism to serious and organised crime. It cannot pursue all these missions equally well. A balance of counter-cyber operations and support to military operations is arguably the best (and least controversial) use of the NCF.
  • More active coordination and leadership of cyber strategy from the centre of government is required. The future of UK offensive cyber should be decided holistically by ministers, not by competition between the NCF’s constituent departments.
  • The NCF will collaborate closely with allies such as US Cyber Command and the UK Government has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to contribute cyber capabilities within the NATO alliance. There remains a balance to be struck between what can be done with allies and what will require sovereign capabilities.

About the authors

Dr Joe Devanny is a Lecturer in National Security Studies and deputy director of the Centre for Defence Studies in the Department of War Studies (King’s College London).

Dr Andrew Dwyer is an Addison Wheeler Research Fellow in the Department of Geography (Durham University) and co-director of the UK Offensive Cyber Working Group.

Amy Ertan is a doctoral candidate in the Information Security Group (Royal Hollway), non-resident Visiting Scholar (NATO Cooperative Cyber Security Centre of Excellence), Cybersecurity Fellow (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), and co-director of the UK Offensive Cyber Working Group.

Dr Tim Stevens in a Senior Lecturer in Global Security in the Department of War Studies (King’s College London) and head of the KCL Cyber Security Research Group. 

Forthcoming event

A panel discussion and audience Q&A to launch this report will be held live online on Tuesday 4 May between 3pm and 4.30pm. It will be chaired by Professor Lady Moira Andrews (KCL), with a panel including the report’s authors and invited guests, including Marcus Willett CB OBE (Senior Cyber Adviser at the International Institute for Security Studies, GCHQ’s first Director Cyber and former deputy head).

Sign up for the event here.

Global Challenges in Offensive Cyber | Jason Healey | The Offense-Defense Balance in Cyberspace

We are pleased to welcome Jason Healey (Columbia University, USA) to talk about “The Offense-Defense Balance in Cyberspace” on Tuesday 20 April 2021 (4pm BST).

Sign up: https://durhamuniversity.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_2VB9tBfLRiq9AjJMbZ4I3A

This talk summarizes four models to understand offense-defense balance in cyberspace: asset, systemic, dyadic, and strategic. The main body of international relations scholarship conflates these models and, in consequence, misses the strong and abiding systemic offense advantage. This systemic offense advantage is deeply rooted in decades of computer-science literature which has not been paid sufficiently attention by political scientists. This talk concludes with the policy and research implications of the systemic offensive advantage.

Global Challenges in Offensive Cyber | Dr Emma Briant | Warfare and Deception: Where will Cyber meet Psych?

We are pleased to welcome Dr Briant to talk about “Warfare and Deception: Where will Cyber meet Psych?” which is happening Wednesday 31 March 2021 (5pm BST).

Sign up: https://durhamuniversity.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_2VB9tBfLRiq9AjJMbZ4I3A

Whether or not local and foreign influence operations put Trump in power, accelerated cyber attacks and information warfare during the US election in 2016 had a profound and deliberate psychological affect. As a result, the US launched its own pre-emptive and aggressive cyber strategy seeking to deter future hacks. While Offensive Cyber is normally defined in terms of hardware – computer network attacks with impacts on physical hardware and software manipulation, Dr Briant explains and emphasises the increasing importance of dual impacts on the human ‘infrastructure’ of our minds, which marked the events of 2016. The psychological impacts of Offensive Cyber and how these are mitigated or influenced should be more integral conceptually, suggesting a possible broadening of the concept. Dr Briant predicts that Western governments will recognise increasingly that their own Offensive Cyber outcomes rest on their accompanying activities in the psychological domain and will increase use of information operations around such attacks. It is essential that scholars in the related disciplines discuss, anticipate and better understand how influence and offensive cyber interact addressing their ethical and legal implications together.

Recruitment of Steering Committee Members

For 2021, the OCWG is recruiting up to 3 new Steering Committee members as we move to expand our activities and events. We are looking for diverse members who have an interest in offensive cyber research , writ broad, in the UK context.

If you would like to apply, please send an email to steering[at]offensivecyber[dot]org by Friday 12 February 2021 with the following information:

  1. Maximum of 300 words on your interest in offensive cyber research, your experience to date, and why you wish to be part of the OCWG Steering Committee.
  2. Your current academic (or other relevant) affiliation(s).

Informal contact is welcome addressed to the Co-Leads, Dr Andrew Dwyer and Amy Ertan.