The British government is going on a cyber offensive against rogue states and ISIS terrorists, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced.
The campaign will focus on shutting down the ability of ISIS to spread its “poisonous propaganda”, he said.
He declared £22 million ($31m) in funding to help a number of African countries start joint operations against cyber crime in a continent where extremists have gained a foothold.
Britain’s offensive capabilities have developed through the National Cyber Force (NCF). Set up a year ago, it employs personnel from MI6, GCHQ surveillance and the military for the first time under a unified command.
Mr Raab said the unit's offensive cyber capabilities have already been tested. “We’re not just going to guard against attacks, we are going to target and impose costs on those who are taking aim at us,” he said.
The unit took the online fight to ISIS in Syria, where it had “impaired the ability of Daesh to produce and spread their poisonous propaganda”.
The NCF also conducted attacks on military operations that disrupted “Daesh’s battlefield communications”.
“We'll continue to use these capabilities where necessary, in their proportionate way and in line with international law,” Mr Raab said.
The foreign secretary condemned rogue states such as Iran, Russia, China and North Korea using digital technology to "sabotage and steal, or to control and censor".
He singled out the Russian intelligence services for mounting cyber attacks on Covid-19 vaccine developers. “It seems that almost nothing is off-limits for these cyber criminals," he said.
Criminals are becoming more sophisticated in using ransomware to hack health services and energy networks, endangering lives. This week's shut down of an oil pipeline in the US caused significant disruption as a large amount of data was stolen.
“I think it's worth saying these actors are the industrial-scale vandals of the 21st century,” Mr Raab said, referring to criminals and hostile states.
“We use our capabilities to defend our citizens, to safeguard international collaboration as a force for good in the world, whereas our adversaries use their cyber power to steal, to sabotage and to ransack the international system.”
During lockdowns over the past year, the National Cyber Security Centre reported 723 major incidents in Britain, the highest figure since the government body was formed five years ago. The unit has stopped 700,000 online scams targeting the UK.
The British investment in Africa will be used to help Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda combat cybercrime and fight ISIS propaganda.