New cyber chief to protect against computer attacks

Prime Minister creates security post after warnings of electronic espionage

Britain is to appoint its first national cyber security chief to protect the country from terrorist computer hackers and electronic espionage, Gordon Brown will announce tomorrow.

The Prime Minister's move comes amid fears that the computer systems of government and business are vulnerable to online attack from hostile countries and terrorist organisations.

Neil Thompson, a senior civil servant, will be charged with protecting the national computer network.

Last month, President Barack Obama said he was making it a "national security priority" to protect the US computer network from attack and that he would set up a "cyber security office" in the White House to lead the counter-attack against hackers.

Mr Brown's plans were endorsed by the Cabinet yesterday after a presentation by Lord West of Spithead, the Security minister. Concern has grown in Whitehall that hackers are targeting its computer systems and those of Britain's largest companies.

Officials have said the biggest threat comes from China, but they have also expressed worries about the activities of criminal gangs based in Russia.

There are also fears that terrorists could switch to online attacks to try to cripple the national infrastructure.

Britain has discussed ways of boosting computer security with foreign allies including the US. President Obama said that terrorist attacks could come "not only from a few extremists in suicide vests, but from a few key strokes of a computer – a weapon of mass disruption".

British security representatives have been observing cyberspace procedure used by the Americans. They include how US forces lured senior members of al-Qa'ida into a trap by hacking into the group's computers and altering information that drove them into an ambush by US and British special forces in Anbar province in the middle of last year. Defence sources say that the Americans are moving cyber-warfare equipment into Afghanistan. The technology was used to block Taliban anti-aircraft defences.

According to security sources the US has commissioned research to study what it will take to close down enemy power stations and communications including air transport. The American authorities have barred Chinese companies from taking part in joint projects with its firms on a number of sensitive projects, something, it is claimed, the British have failed to do.

The security services have warned recently of renewed activities by Russian and Chinese intelligence in cyberspace research with the potential to interfere with communications in the UK. Four years ago, the Government issued a formal warning to Whitehall departments and business that they faced "trojan email" attacks from the Far East on an "almost industrial" scale.

Last August, the Government's first national risk register also highlighted Britain's vulnerability by cyber spies. It said: "The UK does remain subject to high levels of covert non-military activity by foreign intelligence organisations. They are increasingly combining traditional intelligence methods with new technical attacks, for example attempting to penetrate computer networks via the internet."

The security services are also fighting a constant war in cyberspace against extremist Islamist internet sites that attempt to radicalise young people or co-ordinate attacks. The new Office for Security and Counter Terrorism has been given the task of disrupting terrorist networks, as well as carrying out a "hearts and minds" campaign within Britain's Muslim population.

Tomorrow's national security strategy, the second produced by Mr Brown, will also highlight the risk to the country from a wide range of man-made threats and natural disasters.

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