LONDON • Russian hackers over the past 12 months have tried to attack the British energy, telecommunications and media industries, the government's top cyber security official said in a speech delivered yesterday.
The warning, by Mr Ciaran Martin, chief of the National Cyber Security Centre, is the strongest indication yet that Russian cyber attacks on Western governments and industries may be far more persistent than United States or British officials have previously acknowledged.
The speech also appeared to fit into a coordinated effort by the British government to publicly warn Russia that its efforts have been noticed. In a speech on Monday night, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed Russia directly. "We know what you are doing," Mrs May said. "And you will not succeed." She accused the Kremlin of "threatening the international order on which we all depend".
Taken together, the two speeches are a sharp escalation in the public accusations around a conflict that has so far remained mostly in the shadows. Recent high-profile cyber attacks, however, have put new pressure on politicians to defend against the dangers.
The most spectacular example is the break into the computer systems of the American Democratic Party during the presidential campaign last year, an attack US intelligence agencies have attributed to Russian hackers.
But Britain this year was hit by the so-called WannaCry cyber attack, carried out by North Korea. It temporarily disabled the computer systems at several British hospitals, forcing the diversion of ambulances and the rescheduling of operations, before it was stopped by the lucky break of a lone amateur who successfully defused it.
US government officials also reportedly concluded over the summer that Russia had penetrated the computer networks of companies that operate nuclear power stations and other energy facilities, evidently gathering information and probing for vulnerabilities. No operations were disrupted.
British and US intelligence officials say the Kremlin has deliberately cultivated a cottage industry of criminal hackers loosely affiliated with Russian intelligence agencies. Russian intelligence officials sometimes personally profit from the revenue from cybercrimes, and at other times they direct the hackers towards sabotage, espionage and other less lucrative objectives.
Among other victories, the Russians appear to have collaborated with a group calling itself Shadow Brokers to release a trove of cyber espionage tactics stolen from the computers of the US National Security Agency, including some incorporated in the WannaCry virus that have now been used against Western industries and governments.