Chinese military computer hackers are being blamed for a sustained attacks on Whitehall’s vital computer networks, security sources have revealed.
State-sponsored “cyber-terrorists” – believed to be part of China’s vast People’s Liberation Army – have been linked to a string of attempts to hack into UK Government computer systems, including at least one assault targeting the Foreign Office.
Security analysts believe the operations are part of Beijing’s strategy to build a “cyber army” – trained to break into and cripple the computer systems of China’s potential enemies, leaving them hugely vulnerable in a time of crisis or war.
The disturbing claims follow a series of similar hacking assaults reported in America, Germany and elsewhere.
Pentagon military computers were successfully penetrated earlier this year, sources in Washington revealed this week, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so concerned by similar problems in Berlin that she raised the matter with Chinese officials during her recent visit to Beijing.
Here the Cabinet Office refused to discuss the threat yesterday, except to say that Britain had “procedures and mechanisms” in place to deal with such issues.
According to security analysts computer hacking has evolved dramatically in recent years, from lone individuals attacking corporations to encompass organised crime gangs and now state-sponsored military operations.
China denies all the accusations, although it has publicly stated that it sees “information warfare” as a key part of its strategy, as it struggles to upgrade its own vast but still relatively low-tech military forces.
Western powers such as America and Britain are thought to be particularly vulnerable to large-scale hacking, as their armed forces are increasingly reliant on computer networks and satellites to communicate, target high-tech bombs and missiles and to organise every aspect of military operations.
With their computers crippled or swamped by bogus information, military forces could be left blinded and directionless, or bogged down by chaos in their supply chain.
A country could also be crippled in time of crisis by successful attacks on its telecoms networks, transport links, financial sector and utilities.
A computer hacking incident which led to part of the House of Commons computer network being shut down last year has since been linked to an organised Chinese group.
Cabinet Office officials would not comment on which Government departments have been hit – although the Foreign Office is thought to be among several suffering cyber assaults – nor on Britain’s own offensive capability to attack other countries’ computer networks.
Alex Neill, an expert on the Chinese military and head of the Asia Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute, said such attacks had been emanating from China for at least four years and apparently reflected the Chinese military doctrine of “pressure-point warfare” – attempting to paralyse an enemy through their most vulnerable weak-spots.
China has also tested powerful missiles capable of blowing up another country’s satellites in orbit 500 miles above the earth.
MPs yesterday demanded that ministers take a tougher stance with Beijing over the issue.
Andrew MacKinlay, a member of the influential Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, condemned the Government’s secrecy over the threat, adding: “This is a very serious matter. It is an act of terrorism and it is emanating from China.
“This is happening against a backdrop where, on a whole range of foreign policy issues, the British Government is very weak. They seek to appease the Chinese.
“They should be more robust and indignant.”
President George Bush, who is due to meet Chinese leader Hu Jintao today, said yesterday that he “may” raise the matter of cyber attacks with countries suspected of carrying them out.
Known hacking methods include sending spy software into a low-grade computer used by an enemy government, and using its security weaknesses to gain access to more sensitive networks and data.
Another tactic is to infiltrate huge numbers of ordinary PCs around the world and use them to swamp a target computer with millions of simultaneous messages or “hits” via the internet, bringing the whole system grinding to a halt.