'Malign actor' hacked UK defence ministry payroll, Sunak says after China reports

A 3D printed model of men working on computers are seen in front of displayed binary code and words "Data leaking

(Reuters) -A "malign actor" has probably compromised the payments system used by the British military, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday after reports that China had hacked into a database holding personal information of the armed forces.

The BBC and other media reported that China had been behind the cyber attack on the payroll system used by Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) containing names and bank details of those serving in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force.

Beijing has rejected any involvement, describing it as a smear for political ends.

"There are indications that a malign actor has compromised the armed forces' payment network," Sunak told reporters during a visit to a soccer academy in London.

"I do want to reassure people that the Ministry of Defence has already taken the action of removing the network offline and making sure that people affected are supported in the right way."

Neither Sunak nor the Ministry of Defence (MoD) commented on any Chinese role. Sunak's Downing Street office said the company contracted to manage the database was under a security review and appropriate steps would be taken.

Defence Minister Grant Shapps told parliament that ministers didn't believe data had actually been stolen and there was evidence of potential failings at the contractor, which also works with other government departments.

Shapps also said he could not rule out a foreign state being involved in the breach.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said Beijing opposed all forms of cyber attack, and rejected any attempt to use cybersecurity issues to smear other countries.

"The relevant remarks from UK politicians are absurd," he said in response to British political reaction to the report.

Britain and China have increasingly sparred over the issue of hacking, with London saying in March that Chinese hackers and a Chinese entity were behind two high-profile attacks in recent years - the targeting of lawmakers critical of China, and an assault on the country's electoral watchdog.

The issue has strained ties as Britain has sought to maintain or even enhance engagement with China in areas such as trade, investment and climate change.

With a national election expected later this year, some British politicians have become increasingly vocal over the threat posed by China's alleged espionage activity.

(Reporting by Kate Holton, Sachin Ravikumar, Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and William James in London; Andrew Hayley and Bernard Orr in Beijing. Additional reporting by Urvi Dugar in Bengaluru; Editing by William Maclean, Christina Fincher and Nick Macfie)