Hackers could take control of Britain’s atomic weapons and use them to start a “catastrophic” global nuclear war, tech experts have warned.
In a report published today, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) said that cyber-spies could commandeer the systems which power the nation’s Trident submarines and then launch devastating attacks.
“A successful attack could neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads,” the report warned.
The pace of technological change is now so great that even the very latest submarines could become vulnerable to unanticipated attacks by hackers using techniques which military boffins have not prepared for.
However, BASIC believes “hacktivists” and cyber criminals do not currently possess sufficient skill to “conduct operations of the required scale and sophistication relevant to penetrating Trident systems”, meaning that any attack is likely to be carried out by a rival nation-state.
“We are not talking about a lone wolf teenager in a basement hacking into the controls of a missile and warhead and starting a nuclear war,” the experts added.
“Rather, we consider the most significant threat by some margin originates from the expanding investments by leading states in their offensive cyber capabilities, alongside their existing intelligence networks.”
Nuclear submarines spend more than half their time at sea, where they journey around geographical “boxes” measuring several thousand square miles.
Only a handful of crew members know the actual location of the subs, which are not connected to the wider internet and are therefore very difficult to locate, let alone hack.
However, potentially dangerous malware could be "injected" into systems when the ship is ashore and the "submarine, missiles, warheads or any other internal system, are being built, or when the submarine is in port for maintenance, refurbishment and software updates".
This malware could then lay dormant and wait to be activated by radio transmissions sent at critical times.
Rival states could, for instance, stop the submarines from working properly during a war, meaning the critical ability for Britain to launch a "second strike" against an enemy is removed.
This would allow our enemies to launch missiles against us, safe in the knowledge we could not respond.
"Relying as it does upon numerous computers, complex software and endless lines of code, the Trident system is undeniably vulnerable to cyber interference," the report continued.
Des Browne, former UK Defence Secretary, told The Guardian that nuclear submarine hacking was a very real threat.
“The WannaCry worm attack earlier this month affecting 300,000 computers worldwide, including vital NHS services, was just a taste of what is possible when cyber-weapons are stolen," he said.
“To imagine that critical digital systems at the heart of nuclear weapon systems are somehow immune or can be confidently protected by dedicated teams of network managers is to be irresponsibly complacent.”
Last year, the Ministry of Defence unveiled plans to spend £2billion on cyber security to protect nukes from North Korea & ISIS hackers.