Chinese-backed cyber attacks 'unacceptable' assault on UK democracy

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden will blame China for a cyber-attacks on the Electoral Commission and a number of MPs, ITV News' Libby Wiener explains

Chinese spies are likely to use details stolen by hacking the elections watchdog to target dissidents and critics of Xi Jinping’s government in the UK, British intelligence services believe.

Beijing has been publicly blamed by the UK government for targeting the Electoral Commission and also being behind a campaign of online “reconnaissance” aimed at the email accounts of MPs and peers.

A front company and two individuals involved in the China state-affiliated APT31 hacking group have been sanctioned in response to the malicious cyber activity against the parliamentarians.

The UK will summon China’s ambassador to account for its actions, Oliver Dowden said, while claiming the two countries’ relationship is not “set on a predetermined course”.

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said the actions were “completely unacceptable” and he had raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

"We will always defend ourselves from those who seek to threaten the freedoms that underpin our values and democracy," he added.

"One of the reasons that it is important to make this statement is that other countries should see the detail of threats that our systems and democracies face."

The government said Beijing-linked hackers were behind a cyber attack on the Electoral Commission, which exposed the personal data of tens of millions of voters, as well as 43 individuals including MPs and peers.

'Last summer the Electoral Commission stated that it had been the victim of a complex cyber attack. This was the work of Chinese state-affiliated actors', says Deputy PM Oliver Dowden

Efforts to step up pressure on China in response include looking at sanctions on individuals thought to be connected with the alleged activity, according to multiple reports.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, who announced the measures in a Commons statement, said: “The UK will not tolerate malicious cyber activity targeting our democratic institutions.”

What were the cyber attacks?

The Electoral Commission attack was identified in October 2022 but the hackers had first been able to access the commission’s systems for more than a year, since August 2021.

The registers held at the time of the cyber attack include the name and address of anyone in the UK who was registered to vote between 2014 and 2022, as well as the names of those registered as overseas voters.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of GCHQ, said it was likely that Chinese state-affiliated hackers stole emails and data from the electoral register.

Rishi Sunak has said China presented an 'epoch-defining challenge'. Credit: PA

This, in combination with other data sources, was highly likely to have been used by Beijing’s intelligence services for large-scale espionage and transnational repression of perceived dissidents and critics based in the UK.

There is no suggestion the hack had any impact on the largely paper-based UK electoral system.

The separate campaign against MPs and peers in 2021 was almost certainly carried out by APT31, officials said, with the majority of those targeted being prominent critics of the Chinese government.

Parliament’s security department identified and mitigated the cyber campaign before any accounts could be compromised, the NCSC said.

The UK acted with support from allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership, which also includes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in identifying the Chinese-linked cyber campaigns.

Rishi Sunak has said China presented an “epoch-defining challenge”.

Speaking at an engineering firm in Barrow, he echoed the language used in the government’s foreign policy review, saying: “We’ve been very clear that the situation now is that China is behaving in an increasingly assertive way abroad, authoritarian at home and it represents an epoch-defining challenge, and also the greatest state-based threat to our economic security.

“So, it’s right that we take measures to protect ourselves, which is what we are doing.”

He would not be drawn on the hacking announcement due to be made by Oliver Dowden, but said: “When it comes to cyber, we have the National Cyber Security Centre, which is world leading.

“Indeed, when I’m out and about across the world, other leaders want to learn and talk to us because they believe that our capabilities in this country are very strong.”

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Nuclear minister Andrew Bowie also said he could not comment on the speculation about China but told LBC Radio: “The fact is that this Government has invested a lot of time, money and effort in ensuring that our cyber security capabilities are at the place they need to be, we’ve increased the powers of our intelligence and security community to be able to deal with these threats.

“And we will stop at nothing to ensure that the British people, our democracy, our freedom of speech and our way of life is defended.”

He insisted the government took a pragmatic approach to dealing with Beijing, amid reports that China’s EVE Energy is set to invest in a battery plant in the West Midlands.

“We have to have a grown-up, pragmatic relationship with China. And that means looking at each of these investments in the round, on a case-by-case basis, ensuring that our security and our individual liberties and freedoms are not undermined by any of the investments that are under way.”

A small group of politicians who are hawkish on China are said to have been called to a briefing by Parliament’s director of security, Alison Giles, in relation to the activity.

They include former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former minister Tim Loughton, crossbench peer Lord Alton and SNP MP Stewart McDonald, the Sunday Times reported.

The four are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) pressure group, which focuses on issues involving the increasingly assertive Asian power.

Meanwhile, reforms of UK spying laws are continue to make their way through Parliament, with the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill also in the Commons on Monday.

The legislation includes measures to make it easier for agencies to examine and retain bulk datasets, such as publicly available online telephone records.

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