Hackers under the control of a foreign government managed to gain access to the UK government's secure network, it has been revealed.
The hackers, described as a "state-sponsored hostile group" gained access to a system administrator account on the Government Secure Intranet, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has revealed.
In a speech to a security conference Maude said the "recent" attack was discovered early "and dealt with to mitigate any damage".
This incident is one of the few times that the government has admitted its systems have been penetrated by a foreign power, even though it's well documented that cyber espionage is a constant problem for all governments. Although the UK's National Security Strategy lists cyber attacks as a 'tier one' threat to national security, alongside international terrorism, there have been very few public examples of such state-sponsored attacks. However, security sources warn that over the last few years these kinds of attacks have moved from the theoretical to the actual.
And it's not just foreign governments that are a threat: some organised crime groups now have access to hacking capabilities as sophisticated as those used by states.
As a result, the UK's government security agency GCHQ is attempting to help shore up the cyber defences of the companies that provide the systems on which it relies, by sharing classified intelligence.
GCHQ said it will start sharing its classified cyber threat information "at scale and pace" to help communications service providers protect their customers. The pilot project will start with the suppliers of government networks and then move on to other critical national infrastructure sectors.
"This ground-breaking initiative will use GCHQ's unique capabilities and insights gleaned from its intelligence and security work to illuminate the critical threats in cyberspace," the agency said.
GCHQ has been rocked by the Snowden revelations about the extent of government surveillance of our online behaviour, and is keen to show that it does more than just hoover up digital communications.
For example, in a rare move, GCHQ confirmed that is was involved in the disruption of the GameOverZeus malware, in an operation spearheaded by the National Crime Agency.
The agency is also looking at how it can support small technology businesses in the UK, and may declassify some of the intellectual property it owns in order to support the development of new businesses.