UK spooks blocked an average of almost two major cyber attacks per day last year as unscrupulous hackers tried to capitalise on the Covid-19 crisis.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) handled 723 incidents between 1 September 2019 and 31 August 2020, up from an average of 602 incidents over the last three years.
The NCSC, which is part of GCHQ, said more than a quarter of these incidents — 194 — were related to the coronavirus crisis.
The figures, published in the organisation’s annual report, highlighted the heightened threat from hackers looking to exploit the shift to home working and fears about the pandemic.
In July the NCSC warned that cyber attackers linked to the Kremlin had been attacking universities and organisations developing coronavirus vaccines in an attempt to steal information.
But while the majority of last year’s attacks came from state-backed actors, the spy body said most coronavirus-related attacks were by criminals attempting to use the crisis for financial gain.
The NCSC has ramped up its efforts to block cyber attacks during the pandemic, with a particular focus on health organisations and the NHS.
The spies rolled out active cyber defences to 235 frontline health bodies and scanned more than 1m NHS IP addresses over the course of the year, leading to the detection of almost 51,000 signs of possible compromise.
Asked if the higher number of foiled attacks was due to increased hacker activity or improved defences, NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester told reporters: “I think we do see the threat increasing, but also I’d like to think we are getting better at detecting some of that harm.”
He added that organisations were also getting better at detecting potential cyber breaches and reporting them to authorities.
In April the NCSC launched a new email reporting service alongside the City of London Police, allowing people to forward dubious emails to be scanned for malware.
The services received 2.3m reports in its first four months, leading to the removal of 22,000 malicious websites.
The NCSC, which also assisted with the launch of the NHS Track and Trace app and the creation of a virtual parliament, said it was also continuing to ensure safeguards were in place to protect the UK from foreign interference in elections and the democratic process.
In July the government said Russia had almost certainly tried to interfere in the 2019 general election after hackers stole papers from an email account belonging to Tory MP Liam Fox and leaked them online.
Lindy Cameron, who was appointed as the new chief executive of the NCSC in July, hailed the organisation’s efforts during an “unusual” year.
“From handling hundreds of incidents to protecting our democratic institutions and keeping people safe while working remotely, our expertise has delivered across multiple frontiers,” she said.
“This has all been achieved with the fantastic support of government, businesses and citizens and I would urge them to continue contributing to our collective cyber security.”