By Rowland Manthorpe, technology correspondent
Reading some of today’s headlines, it might be tempting to conclude that the UK was on the verge of declaring cyber war on Russia in retaliation for the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury earlier this year.
That is the interpretation being given to a speech by the director of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, in Washington last night, two days after senior Whitehall sources told The Times that Theresa May was “preparing a cyber war” against Russia.
A closer inspection of Mr Fleming’s exact comments, however, tells a different story. Describing the Russian state as “reckless”, the GCHQ director said the threat “will be countered by a strong international partnership of allies, able to deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus”.
What we heard was a statement of fact, a recognition that “offensive cyber” now forms part of the arsenal of weapons at a state’s disposal.
Image: Jeremy Fleming described the Russian state as ‘reckless’
Given that a British national has been killed on British soil, it would be astonishing if the government was not considering technological responses. Mr Fleming’s speech simply confirmed that was the case.
Still, seeing as it has been floated, even tentatively, it is worth asking the question: what would cyber war look like? Here, the picture becomes murky.
To assess the options at the UK’s disposal, it helps to think of offensive cyber on a spectrum.
At one end are “hard” attacks on critical national infrastructure such as the Stuxnet worm used by the United States and Israel to disable Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009.
At the other are “soft” attacks which use social media to spread misinformation and disinformation (or even just information, which is in precious short supply in Russia at present).
1:40 Video: Russia: Novichok accusations a ‘frank lie’
Britain has declared that the Russian people are not its enemy, so launching a hard attack would be an extreme reaction with very risky consequences.
As the WannaCry attack showed, the UK’s own national infrastructure is hardly in a state to resist an aggressive retaliation.
Launching a soft attack would be, if anything, more difficult. As the indictments released by special counsel Robert Mueller showed, the Russians schemed for years before hitting the United States in the lead-up to the 2016 election, employing hundreds of people at the Russian Internet Agency.
What’s more, even if it did get under way, this kind of campaign would be hard to justify politically in the UK, a state supposedly based around respect for the value of truth.
So what’s left? Naturally, UK authorities aren’t saying. But the reality may be that there are not too many options – and those that remain rely as much on old-fashioned tradecraft as modern technology.
Image: Whitehall sources say GCHQ has the ‘cyber capability’ to target the GRU
But, whatever happens – and we may never hear about the result – it is becoming increasingly clear that the threat from Russia is forcing the UK and other western states to gear up for all aspects of a cyber conflict.
Because, with the Russians launching “fake news” attacks on the US, France and the UK, as well as numerous other states, you could say that cyber war is already here. We just don’t know it yet.
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As the GCHQ director put it in his speech last night: “The threat from Russia is real. It’s active.”
That is impossible to deny.
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Google pulls Putin critic’s ads from YouTube
Google has removed YouTube advertisements by Russian anti-Putin campaigner Alexei Navalny ahead of regional elections in the country.
Mr Navalny appeared in the ads encouraging Russians to take part in demonstrations and protests against raising the retirement age.
Around 50 of his supporters were detained ahead of the rallies over the weekend, according to local media.
Mr Navalny’s representatives have argued that the removal of the ads from YouTube was “political censorship”, but Google has claimed that it required advertisers to act in accordance with local laws.
Russian authorities say the adss are illegal under the country’s electoral laws, which prohibit campaigning within 48 hours of the polls opening.
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In a statement, Google-owned YouTube said it considered all all valid requests from governmental bodies, adding: “We require advertisers to comply with local law and our general advertising policies..”
Earlier this year, proposals were announced to increase Russia’s retirement age for men from 60 to 65, and from 55 to 63 for women.
Many Russian families, especially in rural areas and small towns, have relied on pensions during times when young people struggled to find stable jobs.
The policy caused Vladimir Putin’s poll ratings to take a hit of around 15%, with the Russian president later softening his stance.
In cities such as Dzerzhinsk, where life expectancy is rising but is still low, some are worried they will not live long enough to retire.
The first rallies against the policy change occurred in eastern Russian on Sunday morning, with protesters walking through Moscow holding red balloons escorted by police.
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Demonstrations also took place in Saint Petersburg and Moscow on Sunday afternoon.
“Putin and his government have plundered the budget for the past 18 years,” Mr Navalny’s team said in a pre-protest statement.
“All that time they assured us there would not in any circumstance be a rise in the pension age. And now they are putting it up.
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“The authorities are not listening to people and that means it’s time to take to the streets.”
Mr Putin makes a point of never mentioning Mr Navalny by name but has suggested he is Washington’s pick for the Russian presidency.
60 laptops and gun went missing from MoD in 2017
Dozens of laptops belonging to the Ministry of Defence went missing last year, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.
A total of 60 laptops, four desktop computers and 48 USB memory sticks were either lost or stolen in 2017.
It has also been revealed that a Glock 17 pistol was recorded as allegedly stolen in Barbados and that a small amount of munitions were reported lost.
The MoD was not asked – and did not give any further details – about who the equipment belonged to, but said it treated information security as a “top priority”.
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Labour’s shadow defence secretary expressed “extreme concern” over the findings.
Nia Griffith told the Sunday Mirror: “In the face of increasing cyber warfare, the potential loss of sensitive information is extremely concerning.
“We need assurances that these devices have not fallen into the wrong hands and, where appropriate, the MoD must tighten guidance to prevent future such incidents.”
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The MoD said it used secure encryption among other methods to stop potential criminals in their tracks.
It told the paper: “We have robust procedures to deter and prevent losses and thefts, whilst precautions like securely encrypting electronic devices ensure they cannot be accessed if they cannot be located.”
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Drinking young blood could prevent illness – study
By Lucia Binding, news reporter
Blood taken from a young person could be the key to maintaining long-lasting health in old age, scientists claim.
Blood factors obtained from young beings can improve late-life health in animals, the study published in Nature journal revealed.
It could also help reduce the chances of developing age-related diseases, the scientists at University College London (UCL) said.
Dame Linda Partridge, a geneticist at UCL, said research shows that young blood could allow humans to live a life free of diseases such as cancer and heart disease right up until their deaths.
“I would say ageing is the emperor of all diseases,” she told The Times.
“A lot of people regard ageing as ‘natural’ and that therefore you shouldn’t interfere with nature. But we’ve always considered it an ethical imperative to cure illness where we find it.”
Professor Partridge’s analysis of data forms are part of a wave of studies and trials backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel at a San Francisco start-up called Ambrosia.
Image: Blood factors obtained from young beings can improve late-life health in animals, the study reveals
The trials saw older adults injected with young blood – something that would cost around $8,000 (£6,200) if rolled out to the public.
Professor Partridge’s study showed that older mice did not develop age-related diseases after being given young blood.
The mice also maintained sharp cognitive function, while younger ones given older blood saw the opposite effect and became ill.
“The practical accessibility of both the human microbiome and blood system makes therapeutic manipulation a particularly attractive approach, but research in animals is needed to establish the long-term consequences and possible side effects,” the study said.
“Blood is the most practically accessible and therefore the most commonly investigated tissue, but it is much less commonly used in animal studies.”
The trials by US startup Ambrosia involved 70 participants – with all involved aged at least 35.
After being given plasma – the main component of blood – from volunteers aged 16 and 25, researchers noted improvements in biomarkers for various diseases.
Ambrosia currently offers teenage blood plasma to older customers at a cost of $8,000 (£6,200) for two and a half litres.
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The company announced this week it had $5.5m (£4.2m) of investment backing their approach.
Smile! Curiosity Rover’s snaps a selfie on Mars
By Sharon Marris, news reporter
In the continuing battle for the most impressive selfie, the Curiosity rover has left your tropical beach photos in its dust.
Curiosity’s panorama was taken on Vera Rubin Ridge during the rover’s adventures on Mars and released by NASA this week.
It gives those of us back on Earth some fascinating clues about life on the red planet.
The thin layer of dust on the rover is the result of a massive summer storm, with the dark shade in the sky showing that dust is still clogging the atmosphere.
Dust in the wind… and on my deck. Explore the surface of #Mars with me in this new #360video. Best in @YouTube app: https://t.co/na8oXc5Ify pic.twitter.com/8tRFu3Y2w3
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The one-ton Curiosity, which carries a massive amount of scientific kit, was drilling for a new rock sample when the photo was taken.
Curiosity is not the only rover on Mars – its older and smaller cousin Opportunity is also on the planet, but we don’t know where.
The same storm seen in Curiosity’s selfie blocked sunlight from the solar-powered Opportunity, silencing it on 10 June.
Flight controllers hope communication will resume as the sky around Mars clears but there are also fears that Opportunity may be lost forever.
Image: Curiosity snaps a self-portrait at Vera Rubin Ridge in February. Pic: NASA
Curiosity is not affected by the lack of sunlight, as it is nuclear-powered.
But it is grappling with other problems.
It was launched in November 2011 with a mission: to find out if Mars ever had the right environmental conditions to support small life forms called microbes.
There was early success, as the rover found chemical and mineral proof.
However, its last two drilling attempts have failed to produce usable samples because the rocks were too hard.
Image: Curiosity captured this image of dust forming in the atmosphere in June. Pic: Twitter/@MarsCuriosity
Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said that Curiosity has never encountered a place with so much variation in colour and texture.
Mr Vasavada said: “The ridge isn’t this monolithic thing – it has two distinct sections, each of which has a variety of colours.
“Some are visible to the eye and even more show up when we look in near-infrared, just beyond what our eyes can see.
“Some seem related to how hard the rocks are.”
Image: Curiosity recorded the sun setting on Mars earlier this year
To find out why the rocks are so hard, Curiosity aims to drill them into a powder so scientists can analyse what acts as the “cement” on Vera Rubin Ridge, allowing it to stand against wind and erosion.
Mr Vasavada said the most likely reason is that groundwater moving through the ridge in ancient times strengthened it, even acting as plumbing to distribute this wind-proofing “cement”.
Or is there something else unusual in the ridge’s red rocks that makes them so strong?
For now, Vera Rubin Ridge is keeping that secret.
But Curiosity, which is about as tall as a basketball player, will attempt two more drills this month before moving to another site in October.