MI5 chief: Cyber attack threat is "astonishing"

MI5 chief Jonathan Evans has warned that there is an “astonishing” level of threat posed by cyber attacks on business and government infrastructure in the UK.

In a speech at Mansion House, the MI5 director general highlighted the increase in malicious activity that is being carried out on an “industrial scale”, and in many cases committed by nation states.

As Bit9 pointed out to us in April, hybrid private-public partnerships are sniffing out crucial intellectual property and siphoning off commercial secrets to nation states. According to the company, every single Fortune 500 firm is under threat.

Evans said that the threat had been reaching greater prominence over the past four years –  with a number of high profile incidents occurring during this time – and both businesses and government were being attacked “aggressively”.

“This is a threat to the integrity, confidentiality and availability of government information but also to business and to academic institutions,” Evans said.

“What is at stake is not just our government secrets but also the safety and security of our infrastructure,” Evans said, “the intellectual property that underpins our future prosperity and the commercially sensitive information that is the lifeblood of our companies and corporations.”

Evans pointed to one “major London listed company” which had been fleeced for £800 million as a result of a state sponsored cyber attack.   

The attack resulted in intellectual property loss and led to a commercial disadvantage as the firm’s corporate secrets were leaked.  Evans warned that “they will not be the only corporate victim of these problems”.

He warned that as we move into the connected internet of things, the ability for cyber criminals to wreak havoc with critical infrastructure will increase. This could lead to the risk of real world damage, not just data loss.

Ahead of the London Olympic Games, Evans warned that while terrorists have not succeeded in cyber attacks as part of their arsenal so far, they are certainly aware of the potential to do so.

Security expert at Sophos, Graham Cluley, told us that signs of increased cyber threats have been evident for some time now.

“I suppose it is astonishing to the average man in the street who may not realise that this kind of thing is happening regularly every day, but hopefully not too astonishing to the head of MI5,” he said, speaking with TechEye.

“It is a real threat, whether it is financially motivated cyber crime or Anonymous groups for instance, or indeed state-sponsored cyber crime,” he said.

Cluley believes that the government will be on high alert for any such attacks at the costly Olympics.

“The reason for the timing of this speech is the run up of the Olympics, where they put a fair amount of investment into protecting the infrastructure there,” he said.

Political hacktivists are a prime threat causing havoc at such an event, Cluley said, and there could be “egg on faces” if systems are not locked down enough.

Chris McIntosh, CEO at Viasat UK, warned that there must be protective measures in place if the country wants to avoid any potential disasters.

“More needs to be done to mitigate the threat of such actions, whether pre-emptive action, data protection or technologies such as encryption,” McIntosh said. “Otherwise we are sure to see not only the private sector but government and military organisations being put at risk, with devastating impact on UK organisations.”