Britain's “top female spy” has been nominated to head National Cyber Force, the UK’s new cyber warfare agency.
The operative, who cannot be named for security reasons, is a veteran of GCHQ, the controversial signals intelligence agency.
She will run the a new joint venture between GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to act as the SAS' online equivalent.
“The specialist who will be running the NCF is not only the best woman cyber-spy in Britain, but the best offensive cyber-spy this country has. She is a highly experienced operator who is very well versed in military operations,” a Whitehall official told The Times.
The NCF has a budget of £250 million and will conduct both proactive and retaliatory attacks against state and non-state actors accused of perpetrating cyberattacks on the UK and promoting "fake news" on social media, and shut down digital platforms used by terrorists and criminals.
It’s unclear however where the operation will be based – it could be housed at the sprawling GCHQ building in Cheltenham, the Ministry of Defence’s Whitehall offices, or have a dedicated headquarters built specially. It is scheduled for launch before the end of 2019, and be initially staffed by 500 hackers, which is hoped to increase to 3,000 by 2030.
The NCF is just the latest UK cyberwarfare initiative announced with much fanfare and extremely lofty objectives – however, previous endeavours have failed to live up to official expectations.
For instance, the British Army's shadowy psyops unit 77th Brigade — which engages in online information operations, among other dubious clandestine activities — has fallen far short of recruiting targets ever since launch in 2014. Figures published in May under the Freedom of Information Act reveal in 2018 the unit reached 340 in strength, 29 percent (or 134 personnel) under target. The Brigade was meant to employ 203 full-time and 271 part-time staff by the close of 2018, but at the end of the year it only employed 190 full-timers and 150 reservists.
Still, it's a small improvement over the Brigade's 2017 size, when the shortfall was 40 percent, and a mere 125 soldiers were recruited or posted to the unit, although civilians seemingly remain unwilling to join.
In addition to this, in February an individual managed to easily take over the Brigade's official Twitter account. He attempted to report the vulnerability to the Army, but struggled — on top of the difficulty of finding the right contact to whom he could relay the information, he was worried about potential reprisals against himself.
Eventually, he decided to alert the Brigade by taking over the account —after goading several official British Army's Twitter accounts, @77th_Brigade was recovered by the military, although the 'gaping hole' remained.