Hackers who threaten national security face being treated like murderers and locked up for life, under new Government plans.
Ministers are concerned that malicious saboteurs who use the internet to spark civil unrest could get off lightly under current legislation.
Impairing a computer – the current offence – carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But a new offence of ‘unauthorised access to a computer’ will be created – carrying a maximum life sentence.
Cyber terrorism is an increasing concern for the Government. Ministers believe the current 10 year maximum sentence is too lenient
Hackers face being locked up for life if their cyber attacks result in people dying or being seriously injured under the Government’s proposals which were unveiled in the Queen’s speech yesterday.
The move comes amid increasing concern that internet terrorists – or even a lone hacker working from their bedroom – now have the potential to disrupt food supplies, telephone networks and even energy supplies by using the internet.
Ministers believe that current 10 year sentence is too lenient and does not reflect the potential damage to people and the economy posed.
The threat has grown as businesses and government become more reliant on the internet – making attacks with ‘serious consequences’ more likely.
Lone wolf computer hackers now have the potential to cause widespread public unrest by disrupting food and energy networks
A major cyber attack on essential networks such as the National Grid, police computers or supermarkets’ distribution systems could trigger ‘severe social disruption’, the Home Office fears.
Attacks that cause serious economic or environmental damage will carry a 14-year prison sentence.
Cyber attacks are now rated as a ‘tier one’ threat by the Government’s National Security Strategy, alongside international terrorism or major accidents.
They are only ranked as less dangerous than a chemical or nuclear attack, or an invasion of a UK overseas territory.
Karen Bradley, the Minister for Organised Crime, said: ‘Our reliance on computer systems and the degree to which they are interlinked is ever increasing and a major cyber attack on our critical infrastructure would have grave consequences.
‘This Bill would ensure that in the event of such a serious attack those responsible would face the justice they deserve.’
The move brings Britain into line with the US, which brought in life sentences for malicious computer hackers in the wake of September 11.
There would need to be a ‘significant link’ to the UK for a prosecution.
Last year three British men in their twenties who were part of the ‘Anonymous’ hacking collective were jailed for between six and 22 months after launching attacks on online services including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. The attacks were conducted in support of Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website.