Britain’s adversaries are seeking to undermine UK society and interests by influencing tactically on social media, one of the country’s military chiefs said on Sunday.
“Our adversaries, our rivals, are exploiting the tools that are meant to make for a more utopian society,” Joint Forces Defence Commander General Sir Patrick Sanders told Sky News’ “Into the Grey Zone” podcast.
The country’s enemies are using “social media against us, fuelling conspiracy theories and really sowing division…tearing the fabric of society apart,” he said. They “could even be fuelling a civil war inside some of these societies.”
What happens in cyberspace has material consequences, Sanders explained.
“It’s not magic. It’s a combination of technology – really clever technology – and people,” he said.
“I think of it as the deliberate manipulation of computer systems and data so that you can achieve real-world objectives,” he added.
Asked if the deployment of disinformation via cyber should be considered an adversarial attack, Sanders said, “The real power is in influence not in sabotage.”
“The most important weapons don’t necessarily fire bullets,” he said.
Sanders explained that the Chinese regime has “a concept of unrestricted warfare.”
“This is their doctrine where they use all means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests, and that’s trade wars, foreign aid assistance, cyber and information warfare, and capturing control of key technologies,” he said.
The use of cyberspace is one thing among many that such an adversary is “weaponising” to achieve strategic advantage and to “change the nature of the international rules-based system,” he said.
This “gradually pre-empts and achieves a fait accompli which leaves us weaker,” he added.
Sanders’ remarks follow Prime Minister Boris Johnson last November setting up the National Cyber Force (NCF), a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and Britain’s intelligence and security service, GCHQ, to collaborate on disrupting cyber threats to national security.
Also speaking to the Sky News podcast, Director of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming explained why Britain needs such a cyber force.
“The UK is already a leading, responsible cyber player,” he said.
“But its also clear that in today’s world where technology is prevalent and where it affects all of our lives…we need to be able not only to defend the digital homeland…we need to be able to compete with our adversaries. We need to be able to contest in cyberspace,” he added.
Asked if Britain has used cyber tools offensively against other states, he did not give any specific operational details but implied that it had done so.
“We’re able to say that it’s available to governments to use,” he said. “The UK hasn’t hesitated and in many respects has led the way with some key allies in calling out behaviours when they have overstepped the lines that we have set.”