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UK Government Says Russian Intelligence Service Targeted MPs With Cyber Attack

A UK minister told the country’s parliament on December 7 that Russia’s security service, the FSB, had targeted politicians, civil servants, journalists, NGOs, and other high-profile individuals with “attempted cyber interference”.

Foreign Office minister Leo Docherty said the FSB was behind a “sustained effort to interfere in our democratic process.”

In this footage, Docherty outlines the tactics he says the FSB used, and describes the entities within and associated with the FSB that were responsible.

He says the Russian ambassador to the UK had been summoned to the Foreign Office to convey the UK’s response, that “these actions have consequences.” Credit: Parliament TV via Storyful

Video transcript

- --very much indeed, Madam Deputy-- Madam Deputy Speaker. With permission, I will make a statement about attempted cyber interference in British democracy. I know honorable and right honorable members across this House will recognize the seriousness of this issue. The government has long highlighted the threat to the UK and our allies from malicious cyber activity conducted by the Russian intelligence services. 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 other place. 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. Madam Deputy Speaker, you and parliamentary security have been briefed on the details of this activity. We want to be as open as we can be with the House and the British public. Our commitment to transparency stands in sharp contrast to the efforts of the KGB successors to exert influence from the shadows.

What can we confirm today? Well, I want to stress five particular points of our assessments. Firstly that Center 18, a unit within Russia's FSB, has been involved in a range of cyber espionage operations targeting the United Kingdom. Secondly, the Star Blizzard, a cyber group the National Cyber Security Center assesses it's almost certainly subordinate to Center 18, is responsible for a range of malign activities targeting British parliamentarians from multiple parties. Thirdly, using these means, the group have selectively leaked and amplified the release of sensitive information in service of Russia's goals of confrontation.

My right honorable friend, the member for Escher and Walton, confirmed to this House in 2020 when foreign secretary that Russia had done this before the 2019 elections with documents related to UK-US trade. I can now confirm that we know Star Blizzard were involved in this operation. Fourthly, Madame Speaker, these cyber actors use a combination of targeting, tailoring their operations in a far more sophisticated way than is usually the case, for instance, from commonplace cyber criminals. They typically engage in thorough research and preparation including via social media and networking platforms having, thus, identified ways to engage a target. They create false accounts impersonating contacts to appear legitimate and create a believable approach seeking to build a rapport before delivering a malicious link to either a document or website of interest. Whilst they have targeted business and corporate emails, the group predominantly target personal email addresses.

Finally, Madame Speaker, the targeting of this group is not limited to politicians but public facing figures and institutions of all types. We have seen impersonation and attempts to compromise email accounts across the public sector, universities, media, NGOs, and wider civil society. Many of these individuals and organizations play a vital role in our democracy.

As an example, the group was responsible for the 2018 hack of the Institute for Statecraft, a UK think tank whose work included initiatives to defend democracy against disinformation. And the more recent hack of its founder whose account was compromised from 2021. In both cases, documents were subsequently leaked.

The government's assessment is based on extensive analysis from the UK intelligence community and supported by a range of close international partners. And today, Madame Speaker, allies from the Five Eyes and Euro-Atlantic region are joining us in illuminating the pervasive nature of this threat to our shared democratic values. And I would like to pay tribute to those dedicated public servants in our own agencies and those of our partners whose painstaking work has allowed us to expose the reality of the threat we face.

Taken together, the UK government judges that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behavior. Russia's attempted interference in political and democratic processes through cyber or any other means is unacceptable. I can reassure the House that we have identified targeting of parliamentary colleagues. We have engaged with victims through both the National Cyber Security Center and the parliamentary authorities. This government will continue to expose and respond to malign cyber activity holding Russia accountable for its actions.

To that end, the UK has noted two individuals under the UK's cyber sanctions regime following a thorough investigation by the National Crime Agency into the hack of the Institute for statecraft. In doing so, we send a clear message that these actions have consequences. The FCDO has summoned the Russian ambassador to the foreign office to convey this message this morning. We have robust systems in place to protect against a threat from foreign malign influence. My right honorable friend, the security minister, leads the Defending Democracy Task Force, which drives work to improve our resilience against these threats. Our National Cyber Security Center, alongside Five Eyes partners today published a technical advisory to provide guidance to organizations and individuals at risk of being targeted to help defend against such attacks.

We will continue to defend ourselves from adversaries who seek to threaten the freedoms that underpin our democracy. It is and always will be an absolute priority to protect our democracy and our elections. A key component, Madame Speaker, of increasing our resilience is supporting the National Cyber Security Center and parliamentary authorities to deliver an enhanced cybersecurity offer to honorable and right honorable members of this place and the other place. This aims to better protect them against this insidious threat and support the resilience of our lively Democratic society. We hope this statement helps raise awareness of the threat and allows those in public life in this House and beyond to recognize how they may be targeted by such operations.

Russia has a long established track record of reckless, indiscriminate, and destabilizing malicious cyber activity with impacts felt all over the world. In recent years, this government has, alongside allies, uncovered numerous instances of Russian intelligence targeting of critical national infrastructure, for example. And we have worked in close coordination with our intelligence partners to expose sophisticated cyber espionage tools aimed at sensitive targets. The irony of Russia abusing the freedoms it denies to its own people to interfere in our politics will not be lost on anyone.

But of course, our political processes and institutions have endured in spite of these attacks. But the cyber threat posed by the Russian intelligence services is real and serious. All honorable and right honorable members should pay careful attention to it in the course of their work and their daily lives. Many in this House may not consider themselves a potential victim. And I want to underline to the whole House that this targeting can be extremely convincing. We must all play our part in exercising good cyber practices using appropriate caution and following the good guidance of the National Cyber Security Center and others to mitigate the threat. That is how we defend ourselves and our precious democracy. And I commend this statement to the House.

- Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy.