Britain is being targeted by up to 1,000 cyber attacks every hour in a relentless campaign to steal secrets or disable systems, intelligence sources have warned.
Hackers and foreign spies are bombarding government departments and businesses around the clock in what has become one of the “greatest challenges” of modern times.
As well as targeting state or trade secrets, the cyber criminals and anarchists also try to disrupt infrastructure and communications, and even satellite systems.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, told The Daily Telegraph that not an hour goes by when a system in the UK is not being attacked. But intelligence sources have revealed that it is much worse than that, with attempts being made minute after minute.
In just a single attack during the summer, a group targeted more than 200 email accounts across 30 government departments. The Foreign office said that without security in place, the hackers could have “gained unfettered access to sensitive government information”.
Cyber crime is estimated to cost the UK about £27billion annually, and earlier this year it emerged that another attack had cost a London business some £800million.
Mr Hague said: “There are attacks made every hour and the losses can be great. I see evidence every day of deliberate, organised attacks against intellectual property and government networks in the UK from cyber criminals or foreign actors with the potential to undermine our security and economic competitiveness.
“This is one of the great challenges of our time and we must confront it to ensure that Britain remains a world leader in cyber security.”
The Foreign Office said it is possible to buy off-the-shelf malicious software, such as that designed to steal bank details from people’s computers, for as little as £3,000.
But the capability of the hackers is also constantly increasing and the targets are growing in magnitude.
Earlier this month, experts at a conference hosted by the respected think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, warned that satellites could be the next target, potentially knocking out entire communication or transport systems.
Last month, Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, warned that hackers may be secretly running company computer systems because firms are too complacent and believe they are protected.
He said that too many businesses had “misplaced” confidence in their security against cyber attacks and needed to take the threat more seriously.
He also told business leaders that the size and pace of cyber attacks was at an unprecedented level and threatened the country’s economic security.
The Government and GCHQ is actively encouraging companies to play their part in fighting cyber crime. It is believed that some 80 per cent of successful attacks are preventable.
In June, Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5, said the “astonishing” level of cyber attacks from enemy states and criminals was threatening government secrets and businesses.
The Intelligence and Security Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, believes Britain should declare cyber war on states and criminals who target the country by using aggressive retaliatory strikes to destroy their own operations.
Security and intelligence agencies should be willing to engage in covert cyber attacks on enemy states using programs such as the Stuxnet virus that targeted Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the committee members say.