The UK has been subject to a “disturbing” number of cyber attacks, the director of communications intelligence agency GCHQ has said.Sensitive data on government computers has been targeted, along with defence, technology and engineering firms’ designs according to Iain Lobban the GCHQ chief.
There was a “significant” unsuccessful internet based attack on Foreign Office computer systems this summer, he added.
Tomorrow the government hosts a two day conference on the issue.
Foreign Secretary William Hague convened the London Conference on Cyberspace after criticism that ministers are failing to take the threat from cyber warfare seriously enough.
It aims to bring together political leaders, such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU digital supremo Neelie Kroes, with leading cyber security experts and technology entrepreneurs such as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Cisco vice-president Brad Boston.
Mr Hague believes a “global co-ordinated response” is required to forge policy on cyber development.
Writing in the Times, Mr Lobban said such an inclusive approach was vital.
“The volume of e-crime and attacks on government and industry systems continues to be disturbing,” he wrote.
“I can attest to attempts to steal British ideas and designs – in the IT, technology, defence, engineering and energy sectors, as well as other industries – to gain commercial advantage or to profit from secret knowledge of contractual arrangements.
“Such intellectual property theft doesn’t just cost the companies concerned; it represents an attack on the UK’s continued economic wellbeing.”
Mr Lobban added that government online taxation and benefits services could be targeted in future, and said a black economy had already developed which saw UK citizens’ credit card details offered for sale.
The Ministry of Defence foiled more than 1,000 cyber attacks in the last year from criminals and foreign intelligence services.
The Foreign Secretary William Hague revealed in February that computers belonging to the government have been infected with the “Zeus” computer virus after users opened an e-mail purporting to come from the White House and followed a link.
He said cyberspace was providing “rich pickings” with UK defence contractors also being targeted.
A leading think tank, Chatham House, has said there is a reluctance by government to share information with the private companies that might be targeted.
It also criticised those same companies for putting up with an “unacceptably high level of risk”.
The government says it ranks cyber security as a top priority.
Last year it announced £650m of additional funding to help tackle computer-based threats.
Around £130m, or 20%, is specifically earmarked for critical infrastructure projects.