Warning that Britain is now in continuous combat with an “invisible enemy” in cyberspace, the Defence Secretary said that the MoD last year detected and blocked more than 1,000 “potentially serious” attempts to infiltrate or disrupt its computer systems.
Speaking to the London Chambers of Commerce defence industry dinner, Dr Fox said electronic attacks on Britain doubled from 2009 to 2010. “There is a continuous battle being waged against us, day in, day out,” he said.
Dr Fox’s remarks are the latest Government warning about the scale and severity of electronic attacks on sensitive State computer networks. George Osborne, the Chancellor, last month said that Government computers are receiving more than 20,000 malicious email attacks every month.
The MoD and its highly sensitive electronic networks are a prime target for people trying to steal secrets or damage critical systems.
“Our systems are targeted by criminals, foreign intelligence services and other malicious actors seeking to exploit our people, corrupt our systems and steal information,” Dr Fox said. “The risks to defence are real, and I take them very seriously.”
Dr Fox did not disclose details about who is behind the electronic attacks, but officials say that cyber attackers include both private hackers and those working directly for foreign governments including China.
Last week, Google said it had discovered an attempt to steal the email passwords of hundreds of its email account holders, including US government officials, Chinese human rights activists and journalists.
US Computer security experts say the number of attacks emanating from China has jumped in recent months
As well as Government systems, major defence companies and other companies are under attack, the minister said, suggesting that successful electronic attacks on the defence industry would have both economic and strategic impact.
“Our national intellectual property in defence and security industries is at risk from a systematic marauding,” he said. “Not only could it severely affect the future success of British industry, our economic advantage, and the country’s financial recovery – but also directly impacts upon our national security today.
“This threat is growing in scale and sophistication – my Department is a prime target,” Dr Fox said, urging businesses and individuals to be vigilant.
“This is the war of the invisible enemy. Success cannot be achieved by government alone because, in cyber space, there are few boundaries between government, business and every individual internet user.”
Even as it cut many conventional forces, last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review boosted British spending on cyberwarfare by £650 million. The money will pay for a new Global Operations and Security Control Centre to co-ordinate electronic defences, Dr Fox said.
Nick Harvey, Dr Fox’s deputy, last week revealed that as well as bolstering the UK’s defences against electronic attack, the programme will also involve the development of offensive capabilities, electronic weapons Britain could deploy against other states.