UK hit by 70 cyber espionage campaigns a month, says GCHQ

GCHQ director confirms the government is targeted by some 70 sophisticated cyber espionage campaigns every month

UK intelligence agency GCHQ director Iain Lobban has confirmed that the government is targeted by about 70 sophisticated cyber espionage campaigns every month. 

Business secrets are being stolen on an "industrial scale" and foreign hackers have penetrated some firms for up to two years, he told the BBC.

While GCHQ started, a couple of years, ago thinking this was going to be very much about the defence sector, Lobban now admits that any intellectual property is vulnerable and can be harvested by cyber criminals.

MI5’s head of cyber, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that “there are now three certainties in life – there’s death, there’s taxes and there’s a foreign intelligence service on your system”.

Neither MI5 nor GCHQ is willing to name those behind the attacks, but Lobban said in many cases the attacks are state sponsored.

The MI5 cyber head said hostile foreign states are interested in a company's mergers and acquisitions activity, their joint venture intentions, and their strategic direction over the next few years.

Any organisation holding sensitive or lucrative information is a target, and security policies everywhere must follow suit and move with the times

Ross Brewer, LogRhythm

That information would be valuable to any country’s state-owned enterprises, he said.

In the light of this reality, UK businesses must examine whether their defences are adequate, said Ross Brewer, vice-president and managing director for international markets at security firm LogRhythm.

“It has become painfully clear that any organisation holding sensitive or lucrative information is a target, and security policies everywhere must follow suit and move with the times,” he said.

According to Brewer, the persistent and relentless determination of attackers has created a need for organisations to deploy robust, real-time defences on their network.

However, he said this approach requires a level of visibility and protective monitoring that is not adopted widely enough yet. 

Underlining the extent of the challenge, Jarno Limnéll, a former cyber security advisor to the government of Finland and director of cyber security for security firm Stonesoft, described Lobban’s estimate of the number of monthly serious cyber campaigns as “conservative”.

“With the cyber battlefield increasingly being established as the new norm, nation states worldwide are pouring resources into developing a range of defensive, offense and intelligence capabilities,” he said.

Limnéll said it was important to recognise that all nations, including the US, Europe and non-state actors, are actively building a cyber presence and investing heavily in this space to achieve both strategic and financial advantages.

“Likewise, everyone is equally a target, and governments, NGOs and commercial organisations need to recognise that this trend is rapidly becoming the new norm,” he said.

Limnéll said nations need to pull together to pursue international norms and laws regulating the cyber security domain.

Otherwise, he warned, some country is likely to face a catastrophic and deliberate cyber-attack against its critical infrastructure which could result in human casualties.

Image: Thinkstock

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention