“A hacker could turn off the lights in Putin’s office”

In the first episode of Channel 4’s new drama The Undeclared War, Russia launches a major cyber attack on Britain. Set at the intelligence agency GCHQ, the series follows the UK’s attempts to respond to a gravely escalating threat: one that could drag the country into war.

The internet goes down, ATMs stop working, flights are grounded, and railways go out of service.

“As far as the attack scenarios go, they’re all eminently plausible,” Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ, tells me via video call from a book-dubbed study. “All the threats that are portrayed against the UK and its democratic system are real. They are all technically feasible.

Sir David’s 2020 book, How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence, imagined a similar scenario. The title of the new drama, from Bafta-winning writer-director Peter Kosminsky, suggests we may already be in a state of war: does Sir David believe him? No, he says, but “we have probably been in a state of undeclared conflict”.

I wonder if it’s possible that Kosminsky – and the West in general – overestimated Russia’s offensive capabilities? Although Putin’s cyber troops have just carried out a wave of attacks on Norway, knocking out public and private websites, Russia’s attempts to cripple Ukraine’s infrastructure after its invasion in February seemed rebuffed. “I wouldn’t immediately jump to that conclusion,” says Sir David. “Americans and commercial cybersecurity companies had all piled in and, I don’t know, but I’m sure GCHQ would have helped as well. So they were ready for this kind of attack.

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