UK government computer systems have been targeted by hackers at least 85 times in the last five years, and over half of the attacks were made on the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
MoD systems were hacked at least 48 times in that period, and 12 times in 2001. The Lord Chancellor's Department has confirmed evidence of 19 hacking incidents in the last five years, three by outsiders and 16 by internal staff.
The figures were revealed in answers to parliamentary questions to Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow. The initial results of his investigation were revealed exclusively by vnunet.com in December last year.
Burstow also highlighted the problem of hardware theft. "Two thirds of all computer thefts are from the MoD. These new figures must give real cause for concern. Apart from the waste of taxpayers' money, it suggests a casual approach to security," he said.
The MP questioned whether departments which say they have not detected evidence of hacking were just victims of more sophisticated hackers. He called for a critical examination of how incidents are reported to ensure that there are no blind spots.
"Computer theft is costing the taxpayer a small fortune in lost hardware and lost time. It is inevitable that government computer systems will continue to receive the unwanted attention of hackers," he said. "The MoD figures should come as a wake-up call to ministers that more still needs to be done to combat cyber attacks and IT thefts."
Over the past five years two thirds of all the computers lost or stolen from government departments belonged to the MoD. Over that period 1,173 computers went missing from the MoD out of a total of 1,933.
Other departments which have reported illegal access by hackers include the Home Office, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Northern Ireland Office.
"If these are just website defacements it's not really a problem, but if they are espionage related intrusions then it is a horrendous problem. But it's difficult to [judge] without knowing how they are defining this," said Neil Barrett, technical director at Information Risk Management.
The vast majority of hacks are still performed by kids, for peer respect, but Barrett said this is now changing.
"It is still small but there is a growing perception of professionalism behind the attacks, like selling a database to a rival company, or extortion attempts," he warned.
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