UK Ministry of Defence launches £2 million cyber defence competition

News by Tim Ring

The British government has kicked-off a £2 million contest to find new ways to protect the Ministry of Defence (MoD) computer systems from cyber-attacks using automated threat response.

The scheme - which may lead to innovations trickling through to non-government organisations - has been welcomed as galvanising new ideas in the key area of cutting the time-lag between spotting cyber attacks and defending against them.

The competition, run by the MoD's Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), is looking for new tools and techniques to automate response, including collecting data, identifying attacks, analysing potential course of action and then responding.

The CDE explains: “Once a system is compromised a cyber attack can quickly escalate, so automated responses are an essential part of cyber defence processes, while recognising that the user may wish to revert to human decision making.”

The competition will not necessarily have one winner, but will back all good ideas. The funding is being split between two phases, each worth £1 million. Phase 1 will be officially launched at an Innovation Network event in London on 9 September. Phase 2 funding will then be awarded on a per-project basis to the most successful bidders.

A MoD spokesperson told “This is an opportunity for both small and larger suppliers, if they have an idea that fits this area, they can put in a proposal outlining their idea through the criteria set out by the Centre for Defence Enterprise. Their proposal is then reviewed and if it is successful they will be awarded some funding out of the £2 million that is available.”

The spokesperson said there could also be spin-off benefits for commercial companies fighting cyber-attacks: “The whole aim is to support people with ideas or small businesses that have ideas that don't necessarily have the funds to develop them further. If they do prove successful, then there's the potential to take them forward.”

The scheme has been welcomed by cyber defence expert Alan Woodward, a visiting professor at Surrey University's Department of Computing and an adviser to the European Union law enforcement agency Europol, as it encourages new ideas in an increasingly important cyber area.

Woodward told SC: “Automated response is still relatively immature but the problem is the nature of attacks is changing. The amount of damage that can be done very quickly, or the potential to do damage very quickly, is increasing, so the ability to react quickly is becoming more important.

“The balance is shifting between the human having to do the analysis and come up with the course of action and the systems saying right, here's what to do, yes or no. There are elements that absolutely can be automated - it might be something as simple as taking a system offline, starting a trace, or there might be some forensic part of the response that you need to do straightaway in order to be able to deal with it later more effectively.”

Woodward said: “I don't think it will be the complete solution at the end of the day but it certainly will be a major component.”

He also believes the MoD will be seeking unknown solutions from mainly smaller firms and in particular ‘intelligent' automated defence systems.

“The sorts of things I suspect they're interested in are going to be systems that learn, on the basis of artificial intelligence. There are systems out there that can learn from events and the next time the same event happens it will react differently rather than just follow the same set of rules. It will learn what's effective. Those tend to be the areas of innovation that smaller companies are quite often very good at.”

Under ‘what we want', the CDE stipulates that bids must include “solutions leading to innovative or disruptive capabilities” and “novel approaches to developing courses of action to secure information infrastructures”.

Under ‘what we don't want' it lists “paper-based studies”, “marginal improvements in capability” and “demonstrations of existing technology products”.

Jim Pennycook, head of operations at CDE, said the competition “demonstrates the MoD's commitment to cyber defence. Automated responses are an essential part of cyber defence processes and this funding will allow us to support a range of innovative proposals in this area.”

The competition, which follows previous cyber-themed contests run by CDE, closes on 23 October. More details are available here.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Video and interviews