By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's GCHQ intelligence agency said on Tuesday it would start to share classified cyber threat information with private companies amid concerns over increasingly sophisticated targeting of businesses by hackers.
The announcement came a day after a cabinet minister revealed that a "state-sponsored" group had recently hacked into the British government's own internal network.
Britain regards cyberspace as "a top-tier national security priority" and key sectors, including finance, energy and transport, have been told to improve their defense against disruption to essential services by hackers.
GCHQ, the British equivalent of the United States' National Security Agency (NSA), said on Tuesday its director, Iain Lobban, would announce the information-sharing deal - initially on a pilot basis - at a two-day conference on cyber security being hosted by the intelligence agency in London.
"GCHQ will commit to sharing its classified cyber threat information at scale and pace to help communications service providers protect their customers; starting with suppliers to government networks and then moving on the other sectors of critical national infrastructure," GCHQ said in a statement.
The move to help protect business came after Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude told the same event on Monday, the first day of the conference, that the government was recently hacked.
"I can tell you of a recent case where a state-sponsored hostile group gained access to a system administrator account on the government secure intranet," Maude said. "This attack was discovered early and dealt with to mitigate any damage."
Britain has said it is recruiting hundreds of computer experts to defend its vital networks against cyber attacks and launch high-tech assaults of its own.
It has said it blocked around 400,000 advanced malicious cyber threats against the government's secure internet alone in 2012, and government documents have spoken of foreign states seeking "to conduct espionage with the aim of spying on or compromising our government, military, industrial and economic assets as well as monitoring opponents of their regime".
Government sources have said a large number of such assaults have originated in China or Russia.
Earlier this month, the Bank of England announced a new framework designed to spot and test possible weak points at British lenders in an attempt to bolster the financial industry's defense against cyber attacks.
Cyber attacks on private companies in Europe and the United States have increased in regularity and severity as increasingly resourceful "hacktivists", criminals and extortionists try to infiltrate systems or just disrupt operations.
Last month, Ebay revealed hackers had accessed its network, accessing some 145 million user records in what was one of the biggest data breaches in history.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)