An adviser to the Prime Minister has accused China and Russia of orchestrating cyber attacks in an attempt to steal national security secrets from other countries. Baroness Neville-Jones, David Cameron's special representative to business on cyber security, warned that attackers were typically targeting government departments as well as private companies.
Speaking after Iain Lobban, the head of the UK's electronic "listening" agency GCHQ, revealed that the Foreign Office and other Government departments had faced a "significant" attack on their systems over the summer, Lady Neville-Jones, who was Security minister until last May, said the two regimes "certainly are" involved in attempts to obtain sensitive information.
"You've got two different kinds of threat we face, one is trying to get hold of the secrets which relate to our national security and our foreign policy and all of the different things that the Government will try and protect," she told the BBC's World at One. "And then, there is the espionage that goes on via the internet, which is designed to take away the intellectual property of companies, so this is not something which is just national security, this is national prosperity and the future of this country as a modern economy."
Despite Mr Lobban's reluctance to point the finger at specific countries, Baroness Neville-Jones added that the Beijing and Moscow governments were "interested in this kind of activity". Today, representatives of the two governments are due to attend an international Conference on Cyberspace in London, hosted by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
Mr Hague and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, plan to discuss "norms of acceptable behaviour in cyberspace"Mr Hague will also open a debate on the "hopes and fears" associated with the internet and security online.
Expanding on the nature of the attacks, Lady Neville-Jones said many were not carried out directly by Chinese and Russian agents but by individuals who would then seek to sell on anything they stole to the countries' governments.
Graham Cluley, an expert in online security at computer security company Sophos, said experienced hackers could take control of computers in foreign countries and use them to organise attacks, rendering them all but untraceable. He added that it was "interesting" that Lady Neville-Jones had chosen to single out China and Russia. "The obvious question is, are we doing it too? I would guess that most countries are involved in this kind of thing because it is an economic way of doing your espionage."
Lady Neville-Jones said countries needed to understand that such behaviour was actually counterproductive and would damage their own national interests.
"What we want to try and do is to create a climate in which people feel that obeying the rules and actually behaving above board serves the national interest and that it is damaging in the end to try to play both sides," she said.