Protect your passwords, warns spy chief, as ransomware cyber attacks double

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Increasing numbers of people are being held to ransom by cyber attackers - Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Increasing numbers of people are being held to ransom by cyber attackers - Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Ransomware cyber attacks doubled in the past year, the chief of GCHQ has revealed - as he warned Britain must “pay attention” to attacks from China.

Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of the cyber spy agency, called for more action to "sort out" ransomware attacks across the UK, adding it was not "rocket science".

He said such attacks have doubled in the last year, with hackers using software to lock files on computers and stop victims from accessing their own data.

This essentially holds them hostage until the hackers receive payment and then give a decryption key to the victim, so they can regain access.

‘Criminals are making very good money from it’

Sir Jeremy said ransomware "just pays" and added that "criminals are making very good money from it and are often feeling that that's largely uncontested".

While cautious of “keeping up” with security challenges alongside European partners, he said the immediate priority was tackling “links between criminal and state actors” to defeat ransomware, which he said “is no mean feat in itself”.

Part of the solution is to “de-simplify this” by removing it from the hands of citizens to keep them secure online.

Advising the public what they could do, Sir Jeremy said: "Back up your data, make sure you've got your admin right, sorted out, make sure your passwords are properly protected, work out where your thresholds are, have thought in advance how you would respond if you were approached for ransom, all those sorts of things - it's just basic stuff."

Growing threat from China

The spy chief also warned about a growing security threat from China as its economy grows, though he insisted the country had not yet won the race on artificial intelligence technology.

"China's rise is a fact of life and it's altering the geopolitics in the region and the world, and so we all need to sit up and pay attention to that,” he said.

"Now, when China oversteps the mark then the UK has been pretty quick to call them out and we've done that especially in the cyber domain.

“Our experience is not necessarily that it's changed behaviour, but it is certainly a debate that we need to have with China.

“I think there [are] some genuine choices for us all as nations in how we approach the threat."

Earlier this month, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, unveiled plans for a new £5 billion digital warfare centre to launch “offensive” cyber attacks in response to ransomware and disinformation campaigns by hostile states.

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