Britain could carry out offensive cyber attacks to tackle high-tech Russian subversion, the Defence Secretary has suggested.
Sir Michael Fallon said the UK and its Nato allies must now compete on the cyber battlefield as much as they do in conventional air, land and sea warfare.
Britain’s adversaries must know they face a price for using cyber weapons, Sir Michael warned in a speech describing how to cope with an increasingly aggressive Russia.
He said Britain was doubling its investment on defensive and offensive cyber warfare to £1.9bn.
The Kremlin was also responsible for creating a post-truth age by “weaponising misinformation” in a propaganda blitz of lies, he said.
The speech came after Moscow has been linked to a string of high-profile cyber attacks across Europe and America.
In April 2015, the French television channel TV5 Monde was taken off air, in an attack French investigators suggested was masterminded by the Kremlin.
Months later, the Germany parliament’s network was shut down in an attack which Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said was steered by the Russian state.
But Sir Michael warned there had been a “step change” in 2016 as attacks mounted.
American intelligence services have accused Russia of using hacking attacks and propaganda to influence the US election campaign in Donald Trump’s favour and to undermine confidence in American democracy.
Russia was obviously “testing” the West to weaken Nato and destabilise countries, he said.
“Today we see a country that in weaponising misinformation has created what we might now see as the post-truth age. Part of that is the use of cyber weaponry to disrupt critical infrastructure and disable democratic machinery.
“Nato must defend itself as effectively in the cyber sphere as it does in the air, on land, and at sea. So adversaries know there is a price to pay if they use cyber weapons.”
However, a group of influential MPs on Thursday said the Government’s ability to protect Britain from high-level cyber-attacks was being hit by skills shortages and a chaotic lack of organisation.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that with cyber-attacks ranked as a top four risk to UK national security, the Government needed to “raise its game”.
Meg Hillier MP, chair, said the Government’s approach to handling personal data breaches was “chaotic and does not inspire confidence in its ability to take swift, coordinated and effective action in the face of higher-threat attacks.
She said: “The threat of cyber crime is ever-growing yet evidence shows Britain ranks below Brazil, South Africa and China in keeping phones and laptops secure.