NCSC unveils new cyber attack classification system

Hacker typing on a keyboard
(Image credit: Bigstock)

The UK's national cyber security body has announced a new categorisation system to classify cyber attacks, in an effort to help intelligence operatives and law enforcement prioritise their response to hacks.

As part of its inaugural CYBERUK security conference, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) yesterday launched the new framework, which comprises six levels of severity, from a minor individual attack all the way up to a catastrophic attack on the UK's national infrastructure.

Upon identifying an attack, the NCSC's incident response teams will use the new framework to classify the attack and allocate the appropriate resources to deal with it based on the severity of the incident.

"This new joint approach, developed in partnership with UK law enforcement, will strengthen the UK's ability to respond to the significant, growing and diverse cyber threats we face," said NCSC director of operations, Paul Chichester. "The new system will offer an improved framework for dealing with incidents, especially as GDPR and the NIS Directive come into force shortly."

Attack categories range from one to six based on impact and severity, with a category six attack defined as a "localised incident" such as an individual being hacked. This level of attack, according to the NCSC, will typically only warrant a direct response from local police, acting in a support capacity.

Responses to more severe attacks - such as a category three "significant incident" - will be led by the NCSC directly, who will be on-hand to provide remote analysis, as well as on-site support.

The highest level of threat is the category one "national cyber emergency". This type of threat - which NCSC head Ciaran Martin has warned the UK will inevitably face sooner or later - is one which attacks critical infrastructure like power grids, utilities or hospitals and leads to "severe economic or social consequences or to loss of life".

In the event of a category one attack, a "coordinated cross-government response" will be spearheaded by COBRA, with NCSC and law enforcement working closely with relevant government departments to offer mitigation and analysis.

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Row 0 - Cell 0 Category definitionWho responds?What do they do?
Category 1National cyber emergencyA cyber attack which causes sustained disruption of UK essential services or affects UK national security, leading to severe economic or social consequences or to loss of life.Immediate, rapid and coordinated cross-government response. Strategic leadership from Ministers / Cabinet Office (COBR), tactical cross-government coordination by NCSC, working closely with Law Enforcement.Coordinated on-site presence for evidence gathering, forensic acquisition and support. Collocation of NCSC, Law Enforcement, Lead Government Departments and others where possible for enhanced response.
Category 2Highly significant incidentA cyber attack which has a serious impact on central government, UK essential services, a large proportion of the UK population, or the UK economy.Response typically led by NCSC (escalated to COBR if necessary), working closely with Law Enforcement (typically NCA) as required. Cross-government response coordinated by NCSC.NCSC will often provide on-site response, investigation and analysis, aligned with Law Enforcement criminal investigation activities.
Category 3Significant incidentA cyber attack which has a serious impact on a large organisation or on wider / local government, or which poses a considerable risk to central government or UK essential services.Response typically led by NCSC, working with Law Enforcement (typically NCA) as required.NCSC will provide remote support and analysis, standard guidance; on-site NCSC or NCA support may be provided.
Category 4Substantial incidentA cyber attack which has a serious impact on a medium-sized organisation, or which poses a considerable risk to a large organisation or wider / local government.Response led either by NCSC or by Law Enforcement (NCA or ROCU), dependent on the incident.NCSC or Law Enforcement will provide remote support and standard guidance, or on-site support by exception.
Category 5Moderate incidentA cyber attack on a small organisation, or which poses a considerable risk to a medium-sized organisation, or preliminary indications of cyber activity against a large organisation or the government.Response led by Law Enforcement (likely ROCU or local Police Force), with NCA input as required.Law Enforcement will provide remote support and standard guidance, with on-site response by exception.
Category 6Localised incidentA cyber attack on an individual, or preliminary indications of cyber activity against a small or medium-sized organisation.Automated Protect advice or local response led by Law Enforcement (likely local Police Force).Remote support and provision of standard advice. On-site response by exception.

The announcement has been welcomed by top law enforcement officials.

National Police Chiefs' council lead for cybercrime, chief constable Peter Goodman, said: "This is a hugely important step forward in joint working between law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.

"Sharing a common lexicon enables a collaborative understanding of risk and severity that will ensure that we provide an effective, joined-up response. This is good news for the safety of our communities, business and individuals."

The new category framework will replace the existing three-tiered structure, and will go into effect immediately.

Picture: Bigstock

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.