The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) suffered a “significant” attack on its computer systems this summer, the head of the intelligence agency GCHQ has revealed.

Iain Lobban, director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), said that the amount of e-crime and attacks on government and industry systems continued to be “disturbing”.

“I can attest to attempts to steal British ideas and designs – in the IT, technology, defence, engineering and energy sectors, as well as other industries – to gain commercial advantage or to profit from secret knowledge of contractual arrangements.

“We are also aware of similar techniques being employed to try to acquire sensitive information from British government computer systems, including one significant (but unsuccessful) attempt on the Foreign Office and other government departments this summer,” Lobban wrote in an article in The Times.

He said that a “parallel black economy”, where cyber dollars are traded for credit card details of UK citizens, was also developing.

According to The Times, Foreign Secretary William Hague added that on illegal websites, credit card details are being traded for just 70p.

“Before the First World War a new type of battleship came out every 10 years or so, but in this race new techniques are adopted every day,” he said.

As the government moves more of its public services online, Lobban also warned that these will become “attractive targets” for cyber criminals, if not properly protected.

He called for an “inclusive” approach to cyber security and asked for the IT industry to contribute its expertise.

 “Cyberspace is going to be one of the great challenges of our day. We need to develop a collective approach to cyber security that makes UK networks intrinsically resilient in the face of cyber threats,” Lobban said.

He added: “Only an inclusive approach, bringing in governments, industry, civil society and academia, will enable us to realise fully the potential of cyberspace.”