A “category one” cyber-attack, the most serious tier possible, will happen “sometime in the next few years”, a director of the National Cybersecurity Centrehas warned.

According to the agency, which reports to GCHQ and has responsibly for ensuring the UK’s information security, a category one cybersecurity incident requires a national government response.

In the year since the agency was founded, it has covered 500 incidents, according to Ian Levy, the technical director, as well as 470 category three incidents and 30 category two, including the WannaCry ransomworm that took down IT in multiple NHS trusts and bodies.

But speaking at an event about the next decade of information security, Levy warned that “sometime in the next few years we’re going to have our first category one cyber-incident”. The only way to prevent such a breach, he said, was to change the way businesses and governments think about cybersecurity.

Rather than obsessing about buying the right security products, Levy argued, organisations should instead focus on managing risk: understanding the data they hold, the value it has, and how much damage it could do if it was lost, for instance.

Security breaches can lead to identity theft.
 Security breaches can lead to identity theft. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

His words at the Symantec event come against the background of a major breach at the US data broker Equifax, which lost more than 130 million Americans’ personal information in a hacking attack in May. The data stolen is extremely sensitive, including names, addresses, social security numbers and dates of birth – all the information needed to steal someone’s identity online.

A further 400,000 British residents were affected by the hack, as well as a number of Canadian residents. The information stolen about them was much less personal in nature, however, consisting only of names, dates of birth, email addresses and telephone numbers.


Striking a dour note, Levy warned that it may take the inevitable category one attack to prompt such changes, since only an attack of that scale would result in an independent investigation or government inquiry.

“Then what will really come out is that it was entirely preventable… It will turn out that the organisation that has been breached didn’t really understand what data they had, what value it had or the impact it could have outside that organisation.”

Levy’s advice to organisations who want to prevent such a catastrophic breach from affecting them is to stop putting their faith in off-the-shelf security solutions, and instead work with employees to uncover what is actually possible.

“Cybersecurity professionals have spent the last 25 years saying people are the weakest link. That’s stupid!” he said, “They cannot possibly be the weakest link – they are the people that create the value at these organisations.

“What that tells me is that the systems we’ve built, as technical systems, are not built for people. Techies build systems for techies, they don’t build technical systems for normal people.”

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