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Better Out Than In.

The catastrophic events of September 11th left the world wondering about security. And if you read the annual Computer Crime and Security Survey from the States, it appears that Eighty-five percent of respondents, detected computer security breaches in 2001, which in most cases cost them money to fix or resolve. Of course, attacks aren’t always isolated incidents, they can be deliberate and prolonged and from the strangest places. In my recent visit to the Middle east, I noticed that both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait appear to be attracting hackers from China.

So far, there’s been a great deal of talk within the IT industry about ‘terrorist’ threats but little or no evidence that the bad guys will use anything more lethal than email against our national infrastructure. In the States, my good friend, Howard Schmidt, moved from his role of Chief Security Officer at Microsoft, to the Whitehouse, where he’s now ‘Vice Chairman of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board’ and responsible for the security of a much larger network than Microsoft’s. Over here, we have many different agencies with overlapping responsibilities, UNIRAS, CESG, NISCC, NHTCU and so on but no single security ‘Czar’ and his team, like Howard Schmidt or Dick Clarke.

Two months ago, I suspected that something new might be happening behind the scenes when I noticed that CESG (The Computer Electronic Surveillance Group at GCHQ) was advertising for a new Director. Now I haven’t heard anyone in my own circles say anything good about the work done by CESG so I was even more surprised when it was suggested that I throw my own hat in the ring for the role, which I did, with a covering letter, informing the selection panel that if it was a civil service-type reformer they needed, then they should ignore me, which they promptly did. No surprises there!

Having quizzed a well connected friend, who offered very useful background and advice on CESG’s work, I arrived at the conclusion that in light of everything that has happened since September 11th, CESG might have a more useful future outside of GCHQ and I fired-off an email to No10 explaining why.

At present the most significant government groups dealing with information security are probably CESG, NISCC, e-Envoy Office, DTI, NHTCU and The Cabinet Office. Of these, only the DTI ‘INFOSEC’ group’ has a specific remit to promote information security to industry and the wider community.

The Office of the e-Envoy concentrates on government to citizen (G2C) issues. CESG has a remit to promote ‘INFOSEC’, but as a part of GCHQ there’s an inevitable conflict of interest. NHTCU (The National Hi-tech Crime Unit) is obviously more concerned with catching paedophiles than with promoting security and any remaining agencies are more likely to be concerned with intra-governmental issues.

Perhaps the solution to our own National Infrastructure Protection challenge is to bring CESG out of GCHQ - leaving behind the cryptography element of its work. Personally, I think the INFOSEC function it controls would be better placed within the DTI or The Office of The e-Envoy rather than the Cabinet Office, as the issues it deals with primarily concern industry.

By effectively boosting the INFOSEC group it will have more authority to resolve such weighty matters as security evaluation in a much more industry-friendly fashion. This solution might also give the support needed to expand the government’s t-scheme to cover the whole range of trusted security provision.

Outside of GCHQ and the ‘Spook’ environment, CESG could operate as a central point of focus for INFOSEC issues with regard to those outside government and will raise the profile generally of information security within the wider business community, something we badly need.

Is this a good idea? I think so of course, because if we are to take information security seriously, then we need a better line of operational responsibility than the one we have, which to be honest ‘Kind of confused our American friends’, when I first discussed it with them at the end of last year.

Will No10 shuffle the pack and come-up with a better solution? Your guess is as good as mine but I would like to think that the message may have arrived at the right quarters and that the announcement of a new head of CESG may also coincide with some kind of internal change that reflects the concerns expressed in my letter.

Anyone care to take a bet on it?

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