The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has revealed that a cyber-espionage operation has stolen sensitive data from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), in an attack that has “both security and financial consequences” for the country.
The admission came in the ISC’s annual security report issued yesterday and again demonstrates the seriousness of cyber-threats being faced by the UK government.
Having outlined the growing rate of attacks on British business, the report said, “Government departments are also targeted via attacks on industry suppliers which may hold government information on their own systems. We have been told that cyber espionage ‘[has] resulted in MOD data being stolen.’ This has both security and financial consequences for the UK.”
The breach represents a significant blow to the government’s cyber-security efforts, with Westminster currently ploughing millions into a host of initiatives to strengthen the nation’s digital defences.
The MoD has not disclosed any further details on the attack and the nature of the information stolen is unknown.
Elsewhere, the ISC report said that over 200 email accounts across 30 government departments were targeted in an attempt to steal confidential data last in summer 2012.
“The Committee has been told this year that the threat from cyber attacks ‘is at its highest level ever and is expected to rise further still’, with the identification of ‘new actors and more evidence of serious hostile cyber activity’,” the report adds ominously.
Recent admissions from the Government’s Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) support the findings, as the agency said it was seeing as many as 70 sophisticated cyber-espionage attacks launched on UK organisation’s every month.
Data encryption is typically deployed to protect sensitive government information, but industry experts say lax handling of the technology is putting organisations at risk.
“Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about how to use encryption to protect critical data. Failure to retain custody of your encryption keys is a huge issue that essentially negates the benefits of encryption,” warned Dwayne Melancon, CTO of security firm Tripwire following the ISC report.
“This is analogous to gaining possession of the Enigma machine in World War II - you think you're secure, but your adversaries can do whatever they want with your precious assets.
“To me, the lesson here is that you not only need to protect your data, you need to protect the security measures you are implementing to protect your data.”
The ISC document says protecting sensitive information within the government’s IT infrastructure is of “crucial importance,” but describes the current cyber-defences as only “reasonably well developed.”
Regardless of the security policy the government implements, individuals and groups in the private sector will remain at risk, says Jeremiah Grossman, CTO of WhiteHat Security.
"What individuals and business must understand is that, while governments are able to reasonably protect a country's physical borders, it has little capability to defend their populace from incoming cyber-attack whether domestic or foreign in origin - they are on their own."