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Are UK Elections at Risk of Russian Interference?

Chloe Henderson


Politicians have been warned that Russian hackers could threaten British democracy by trying to influence the next general election.

In a letter penned to leaders of the UK’s main political parties, Ciaran Martin, the Chief Executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), warned that British political processes are at risk of interference by Kremlin-backed cyber-criminals.

In the letter, he said: “You will be aware of the coverage of events in the United States, Germany and elsewhere reminding us of the potential for hostile actions against the UK political system.”

Russia is alleged to have used cyber-attacks to influence the US presidential election last November, after demonstrating a clear preference for then President-elect Donald Trump.

It was also suspected of hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015. German intelligence accused Russia of trying to influence the country’s upcoming federal election through “aggressive cyber-espionage.”

More recently, Ronald Prins, co-founder of cyber security company FOX-IT, told that Russian cyber-criminals are currently hacking the Dutch parliamentary elections as a “warm up” for elections in France and Germany.

FOX-IT is a cyber security organisation that counts Dutch intelligence service AIVD and various Dutch ministries among its clients.

Whilst Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said there is no evidence of any successful attack having been carried out in the UK, he warned that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,” adding that they were “up to all sorts of dirty tricks.”

Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, protested the remarks, branding accusations of Russian interference in Western nations’ domestic affairs as “ridiculous.”

He also said that the anti-Russian campaign in the UK “should be toned down, and whatever evidence there is to support accusations against Russia, it should be made public.”

Security sources told The Sunday Times that GCHQ regards protecting the political system from foreign hackers as “priority work.”

The fear is that Kremlin-sponsored cyber-hackers could leak internal emails in an attempt to damage the standing of political parties with the public, a tactic which was used against the US Democratic Party in November.

In February, Ciaran Martin warned that 188 high-level cyber attacks had been made against Britain in the previous three months, “many of which threatened national security.”

Chancellor Philip Hammond, former defence and foreign secretary, also said that the NCSC was blocking as many as 200 “potential attacks” on government departments and the public every day.

In co-ordination with GCHQ, the NCSC has organised a technical seminar where politicians will be educated on matters of cyber-security.

In his letter, Martin also offered his advice to party heads, instructing them on how to better withstand cyber-attacks.

He wrote: “This is not just about the network security of political parties’ own systems. Attacks against our democratic processes go beyond this and can include attacks on parliament, constituency offices, think tanks and pressure groups, and individuals’ email accounts.”

The Scottish Government has also taken steps to ensure that its strategy for cyber-security is up to date. When asked to comment on their cyber-policy, a representative told DIGIT:

“The Scottish Government has established a close working relationship with the UK National Cyber Security Centre, which was set up in July 2016 and is overseen by the Cabinet Office and GCHQ. We share cyber threat and attack intelligence through a variety of networks at a UK and Scottish level.”

Cyber security is recognised as a “key risk” for The Scottish Government and is being addressed in their Cyber Security Strategy 2020, this includes four key outcomes:

  • Ensuring that the Government’s assets are resilient to cyber-attacks.
  • Managing security risks with a consistent approach that supports digital transformation and the adoption of new technology, while safeguarding systems and data.
  • Providing expert cyber advice and guidance to business information owners to ensure that they have confidence in the decisions they make.
  • Further improving the culture of cyber security awareness to reduce the likelihood of a successful cyber-attack.

The representative also stated that the Scottish Government has invested, and will continue to invest, in the establishment of its own Cyber Security Operations Centre:

“[It] uses a range of industry recognised monitoring and defensive tools to safeguard our infrastructure and assets. Further investment in the CSOC will continue to be made over the next 3 years to enhance and extend this capability.”

In November 2015, The Scottish Government published a Scottish cyber resilience scheme to “contribute to protecting Scotland from infrastructure attacks, hostile reconnaissance, and thefts of intellectual property.”

The report, titled ‘Safe, secure and prosperous: a cyber resilience strategy for Scotland,’ was written in coordination with organisations including Microsoft, Police Scotland, and the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance.

In a foreword to the report, Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, outlined the importance of a strong cyber-security strategy with the increasing reliance on digital technologies.

He wrote: “We have a stake in making Scotland one of the safest places in the world to live and do business, thus ensuring our economy and our people reap the rewards of expanding digital opportunities. I ask all leaders and educators across the public, private and third sectors to regard cyber resilience as vital to their success in our online world.”

Chloe Henderson

Staff Writer - DIGIT

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