Cyber Strategy Update Shows How UK Intelligence is Thwarting Attack

The NCSC’s Active Cyber Defence report for 2019 has been published.

A scam to defraud thousands of UK citizens using a fake email address spoofing a UK airport was one of a wide range of cyber-attacks successfully prevented by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a report revealed.

Details of the criminal campaign are just one case study of many in Active Cyber Defence – The Second Year, the latest comprehensive analysis of the NCSC’s world-leading programme to protect the UK from cyber-attacks.

The thwarting of the airport scam was one example in 2018 of how ACD protects the public – in this case preventing potentially thousands of people ending up out of pocket.

The incident occurred last August when criminals tried to send in excess of 200,000 emails purporting to be from a UK airport and using a non-existent gov.uk address in a bid to defraud people.

However, the emails never reached the intended recipients’ inboxes because the NCSC’s ACD system automatically detected the suspicious domain name and the recipient’s mail providers never delivered the spoof messages. The real email account used by the criminals to communicate with victims was also taken down.

A combination of ACD services has helped HMRC’s own efforts in massively reducing the criminal use of their brand. HMRC was the 16th most phished brand globally in 2016, but by the end of 2018 it was 146th in the world.

Dr Ian Levy, the NCSC’s Technical Director and author of the ACD report, said:

“These are just two examples of the value of ACD – they protected thousands of UK citizens and further reduced the criminal utility of UK brands. Concerted effort can dissuade criminals and protect UK citizens.

“While this and other successes are encouraging, we know there is more to do, and we would welcome partnerships with people and organisations who wish to contribute to the ACD ecosystem so that together we can further protect UK citizens.

“This second comprehensive analysis we have undertaken of the programme shows that this bold approach to preventing cyber-attacks is continuing to deliver for the British public.”

Introduced by the NCSC in 2016, ACD is a bold, interventionist approach that stops millions of cyber-attacks from ever happening. It includes the pioneering programmes Web Check, DMARC, Public Sector DNS and a takedown service.

The ACD technology, which is free at the point of use, intends to protect the majority of the UK from the majority of the harm from the majority of the attacks the majority of the time.

Other key findings for 2018 from the second ACD report include:

  • In 2018 the NCSC took down 22,133 phishing campaigns hosted in UK delegated IP space, totalling 142,203 individual attacks;
  • 14,124 UK government-related phishing sites were removed;
  • Thanks to ACD the number of phishing campaigns against HMRC continues to fall dramatically – with campaigns spoofing HMRC falling from 2,466 in 2017 to 1,332 in 2018. These figures relate to 16,064 spoof sites in 2017 and 6,752 sites in 2018;
  • The total number of takedowns of fraudulent websites was 192,256, and across 2018, with 64% of them down in 24 hours;
  • The number of individual web checks run has increased almost 100-fold, and we issued a total of 111,853 advisories direct to users in 2018.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington said:

“The UK is safer since the launch of our cyber strategy in 2016. Over the last three years, and backed by a £1.9 billion investment, we have revolutionised the UK’s fight against cyber threats as part of an ambitious programme of action.

“The statistics and examples in this report speak for themselves. They outline the tangible impact that Active Cyber Defence is having, and how it is a key building block in improving cyber security in the UK now, and in the future.”

The new report also looks to the future of ACD, highlighting a number of areas in development. These include:

  • The work between the NCSC and Action Fraud to design and build a new automated system which allows the public to report suspicious emails easily. The NCSC aims to launch this system to the public later in 2019;
  • The development of the NCSC Internet Weather Centre, which will aim to draw on multiple data sources to allow us to really understand the digital landscape of the UK;
  • We’ll explore developing an Infrastructure Check service: a web-based tool to help public sector and critical national infrastructure providers scan their internet-connected infrastructure for vulnerabilities;
  • NCSC researchers have begun exploring additional ways to use the data created as part of the normal operation of the public sector protective DNS service to help our users better understand and protect the technologies in use on their networks.

Active Cyber Defence – The Second Year

You can read the full 2019 report here.