70 cyber-espionage attacks a month stealing UK business secrets on “industrial scale”

One of the biggest cyber-threats to the UK appears to be coming in the form of sophisticated espionage plots, with intelligence officials revealing the alarming rate of attacks currently being endured by British organisations.

The BBC has learned that around 70 sophisticated cyber-espionage operations are launched on government or industry networks every month, leaving intellectual property brutally exposed.

Sir Iain Lobban, director of the Government’s Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), said foreign hackers have managed to penetrate some UK companies for up to two years, and that business secrets across the country were currently being stolen on an “industrial scale.”

“People are going after intellectual property and then seeking to translate it into national gain,” said Lobban. "We started a couple of years ago thinking this was going to be very much about the defence sector but really it's any intellectual property that can be harvested."

MI5 told the BBC that foreign intelligence services were behind many of the attacks, but neither the security division nor GCHQ were willing to specify exactly who was responsible for the operations.

"We're sure we know who it is," Lobban admitted, but the GCHQ chief would not elaborate beyond the assertion that many of the attacks are "state sponsored".

"Attribution can be very hard and it's very difficult to do attribution in real time but over a period you can build up a pretty strong idea," he added.

The growing scale of cyber-attacks on the UK has become a major issue for the government, with Whitehall launching a range of initiatives to tackle the problem this year. Most recently, the Home Office announced a £4 million project to improve awareness of cyber-threats among consumers and small businesses.

The move followed a wider campaign revealed in March, with the all-new Cyber Security Information Partnership (CISP) bringing together the private and public sectors to share real-time intelligence on cyber-attacks to be analysed by police and cyber-experts. We took a closer look to see if the scheme would offer an improvement in the UK's efforts to tackle cybercrime.