Russian spies targeting UK MPs and media with ‘cyber interference’ | Politics

Russian spies have been targeting British MPs, peers, civil servants, journalists and others with cyber-hacking since 2015 as part of a concerted attempt to meddle in British politics, a Foreign Office minister has said.

Leo Docherty, a minister under David Cameron, told the House of Commons that the Russian federal security service was using “cyber interference” to target politically connected people.

He said one Russian group was behind the 2018 hack on the Institute for Statecraft, and that two individuals have been “designated” under the cyber sanctions regime as a result. The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office on Thursday morning to be informed of these sanctions.

Docherty said: “I can confirm today that the Russian federal security services, the FSB, is behind a sustained effort to interfere in our democratic processes. They have targeted members of this house and the [House of Lords]. They have been targeting civil servants, journalists and NGOs. They have been targeting high-profile individuals and entities with a clear intent – using information they obtain to meddle in British politics.”

Doherty said a group called Centre 18, a unit within the FSB, has been involved in cyber-espionage and a subordinate group called Star Blizzard was involved in the hacking activity targeting “British parliamentarians from multiple parties”.

He said the group had “selectively leaked and amplified the release of sensitive information in service of Russia’s goals of confrontation”.

Docherty said the hackers engaged in thorough research and “impersonated contacts that appear legitimate and create a believable approach seeking to build a rapport before delivering a malicious link”. He said they predominantly target personal accounts.

“Russia has a long established track record of reckless, indiscriminate and destabilising cyber activity,” Docherty told MPs.

Speaking while on a trip to the US, British foreign secretary David Cameron said: “Russia’s attempts to interfere in UK politics are completely unacceptable and seek to threaten our democratic processes.

“Despite their repeated efforts, they have failed. In sanctioning those responsible and summoning the Russian ambassador today, we are exposing their malign attempts at influence and shining a light on yet another example of how Russia chooses to operate on the global stage.

“We will continue to work together with our allies to expose Russian covert cyber activity and hold Russia to account for its actions.”

MPs have previously complained about being targeted by hackers, with Labour’s Ben Bradshaw saying in 2019 that he believed he had been subject to interference by Russia. The Russian government was also suspected in 2017 of being behind a cyber-attack on parliament that breached dozens of email accounts belonging to MPs and peers.

Dominic Raab, the former foreign secretary, previously said Russia was involved in the leak of documents related to UK-US trade and Docherty said Star Blizzard was now believed to be responsible.

However, this is the strongest confirmation from the government that it believes Russia is systemically trying to interfere in the UK’s democratic processes.

A damning report from parliament’s intelligence and security committee found in 2020 that the British government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The long-delayed Russia report at the time said ministers in effect turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption. It said the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time, and it made clear that no serious effort was made to do so.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said the news was “concerning and an attack on British democracy”.

He said: “It comes as we approach 2024, the year of elections in the US, India and the EU … Is the minister confident they have uncovered the full extent of this cyber-attack? … And has there been any specific action to respond to the cyber-attack on parliamentarians he has revealed today and if not, why not? Third, as we approach the election, what steps is the government taking to ensure the integrity of the democratic process?”

Docherty said “specific action has been taken” to improve preventive measures against cyber-targeting but it was now a matter for improved vigilance on all sides.


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