Into The Grey Zone: China and Russia cyber threats can't be lumped together like 'Chas & Dave'

·3-min read

China and Russia pose the biggest state-backed cyber threat to the UK but you cannot lump them together like "Chas & Dave", the musical duo, a former top cyber official has said.

Instead, the two countries present very different challenges, according to Ciaran Martin, who was the head of GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre until last August.

Asked which states are viewed as the main cyber threat, Mr Martin said in an interview: "The top two hostile actors, from the point of view of a country like the UK, are China and Russia.

"But you lump them all together as if, you know, it's sort of 'Chas & Dave'. It's not. They're completely different actors."

Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock became famous in the 1970s and 1980s as the cockney musical duo "Chas & Dave". Some of their best-known hits included Gertcha and Rabbit.

Mr Martin, who now works as a professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, explained how the alleged cyber threat from Moscow and Beijing differed.

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"Russia is projecting an area in which it's strong from a general position of strategic weakness. But it's good at cyber. So it uses it to its advantage and it uses it to play in the great power space," Mr Martin told Sky News's Into The Grey Zone podcast.

"It uses it for classical, traditional statecraft, motives, espionage, strategic advantage, disinformation and so on. So it's used as a method of projecting what's left of Russian state power."

An alleged example of this is a massive cyber hacking campaign against the US that was first discovered in December 2020. US officials have blamed Russia for what could be the most serious breach of US government systems.

The Kremlin has denied involvement.

The so-called SolarWinds breach is still being investigated.

As for China, Mr Martin said the origin of Beijing's cyber capabilities were economic.

"In the first decade of the century, a huge sort of ecosystem of Chinese cyber attack built up that was basically designed to advance China's economic expansion through getting commercial advantage, whether that was through espionage, whether it was through stealing somebody else's design of a car or whatever it was," he said.

"It, of course, still spied on governments and that sort of thing. But that was basically the way of the Chinese cyber attacks system worked.

"It's conceptually quite simple. Just they're trying to attack us. Our job is to try and make sure that it does as little harm as possible."

China and Russia have previously repeatedly denied allegations by the UK and other Western allies that they have conducted cyber attacks.

States, criminals and terrorists all use cyber to harm each other in a grey zone that sits deliberately under the threshold of war.

It puts anyone with a computer in the firing line, but also means that anyone who understands computers has the ability to fight back.

You can hear more from the interview with Mr Martin in Episode Four of Into The Grey Zone, which explores how cyber is used as a weapon, including with a look at the WannaCry cyber attack in 2017 that hit the UK's National Health Service, impacting thousands of patients.