Rogue states are hiring hackers to steal secrets and cause disruption, UK cyber chief warns

Concern is mounting that states including Iran are increasing cyber warfare activities to undermine Western democracies or steal information, including Covid-19 vaccine research

Britain’s cyber chief has warned that rogue states and criminals pose a serious threat by using computer viruses to steal academic research and government secrets.

Ciaran Martin, head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre [NCSC], also warned that expert computer hackers are being hired to covertly steal emails or track people's movement by accessing their global positioning locators.

Mr Martin, 45, raised concerns that cyber-weapons used for financial gain can become uncontrollable and unintentionally infect companies or public services.

“What keeps me awake at night is worrying about the damage a rogue, state-backed or stateless criminal group could do with a cyber-tool they don’t fully understand, and can’t control once they’ve launched it,” he said.

“The most likely cause of the so-called ‘category one’ attack that the UK has so far been fortunate to avoid is an uncontrolled virus, accidentally released by incompetent attackers, infecting and disrupting companies or public services they didn’t intend to target.”

The retiring NCSC chief executive listed Iran as one of the rogue states using hundreds of computer experts to hunt for people or interfere with other country’s online systems.

“Iranian hackers have an appetite for large datasets to help them track people of interest and to disrupt services in countries during times of international tension,” he said.

There are also growing concerns that states such as Russia and China are increasing their use of cyber warfare to undermine Western democracies or steal information. There have been allegations made by British spy chiefs that Russia attempted to hack into the Covid-19 vaccine research at Oxford University.

Mr Martin said the British government was right to increase its vigilance on "countering hostile state activity against the UK". He wrote in The Sunday Times: "Some of Russia's cyber-attack groups have been targeting us on a variety of fronts, including national infrastructure such as our energy systems, and more recently our medical research on Covid-19 and our democratic processes and those of our allies."

He also criticised China for its continued attacks on allegedly stealing high-end technology from European and American companies through cyber theft.

“Chinese actors continue to seek economic advantage through massive-scale intellectual property theft and now, increasingly, to gain control of strategic technology,” he said.

He added that a number of cyber hackers in North Korea continue to pose a threat by getting into the world’s financial systems to raise cash for the Pyongyang regime.