UK under cyberspace attack warns GCHQ

The UK is under daily attack in cyberspace according to British intelligence.
Britain is seeing about 70 sophisticated cyber espionage operations a month against government or industry networks.

GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban said business secrets were being stolen on an “industrial scale”.

Foreign hackers have penetrated some firms for up to two years, he said.

And he denied that his organisation had broken the law in receiving information from the Prism spy programme.

Foreign intelligence services are behind many of these attacks, according to Britain’s Security Service MI5.

MI5’s origins are as a counter-espionage agency – catching foreign spies – and that is still what it tries to do in cyberspace.

So who is behind these attacks? Both MI5 and GCHQ said they knew who was behind the attacks but neither was willing to say.

Foreign Secretary William Hague also declined to point the finger now but did not rule out doing so in the future. “That’s not been our approach so far. But that might have to change if things get worse.”

Washington has taken a different approach. Both the administration and Congress are explicit about what they see happening to American companies.

“I stand back in awe as a professional at the breadth, depth, sophistication and persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the United States of America,” Michael Hayden, former director of America’s spy agency the NSA said.

That is, of course, a slightly disingenuous answer since most experts believe that the NSA (along with GCHQ) is amongst the most adept and busy of all global spy agencies when it comes to stealing the secrets of other countries.

Hayden however draws a distinction. “We steal secrets too… but we steal only those things that keep British or American subjects safe and free. We don’t steal things to make Americans – or in CHQ’s case British – subjects rich. The Chinese do.”

The view from Beijing is very different. It sees America using the charge of economic espionage to distract from its own aggressive cyber activities – ranging from traditional espionage to preparing for cyberwar.

China is watching the Pentagon grow its cyber command five fold to nearly 5,000 personnel and also worries at the way in which American corporations still play a dominant role in the internet globally.

China’s argument has been bolstered by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents which portray a huge level of espionage against Chinese (and other) computer networks and information flows.

In a statement after the revelations, Sir Iain said that GCHQ did not circumvent the law and worked under a robust framework. “I can say that any data obtained by us from any other nation which involves individuals in the UK is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards.,”

“The secret intelligence provided by all the UK security and intelligence agencies is vital to defeating terrorism and maintaining Britain’s broader national security. Acquiring it in ways that somehow evade UK law would be a contradiction in terms.”