Exclusive: Britain will lead global fightback against cyber attackers, says Dominic Raab

·8-min read
Dominic Raab indicated that the UK would expand its blacklisting system to target greater numbers of individual hackers and hostile agents online
Dominic Raab indicated that the UK would expand its blacklisting system to target greater numbers of individual hackers and hostile agents online

Dominic Raab has vowed to “take the fight to cyber criminals” extorting businesses, schools and hospitals, as Britain is poised to announce a raft of sanctions on foreign hackers.

The Foreign Secretary declared on Thursday that the UK and the United States would “lead globally” on countering ransomware attacks that paralyse national infrastructure.

In an interview with The Telegraph in Cornwall, ahead of the start of the G7 summit, Mr Raab warned that cyber attacks had increased across the West.

Setting out his determination to hit back against hackers, he declared: “We will apply a cost to those that systematically are engaged in cyber attacks for either profit, espionage or to do damage and just wreak chaos.”

Improving the resilience of national networks and infrastructure is set to be a key theme of the three-day meeting of leaders from seven wealthy democracies.

It is understood that Joe Biden, the US president, is pushing for cyber defence to be included in the joint communique that the G7 leaders will issue on Sunday.

Mr Biden laid bare his intent after flying into Britain on Wednesday evening, telling American troops at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk: “We have to make sure that new technologies and norms of conduct in cyberspace are established, including addressing the growing threat of ransomware attacks.” He described cyber attacks as “critical national security issues in 2021”.

Joe Biden, left, and Boris Johnson during a walkabout on Thursday ahead of the G7 summit
Joe Biden, left, and Boris Johnson during a walkabout on Thursday ahead of the G7 summit

Mr Raab indicated on Thursday that plans were afoot for the UK to expand its blacklisting system to target greater numbers of individual hackers and hostile agents online.

Setting out the UK’s campaign to deter cyber assaults, he signalled that “individual sanctions”, “other more offensive means of disabling” hackers, and attributing malign organisations behind known attacks would be levers the Government would use.

Sanctions would entail asset freezes and travel bans on individuals. Up until now, ministers have eschewed naming individual hackers, but it is understood that a new drive to publicly expose them is about to start.

A government source said: “We are expanding our presence, our remit for action, and the energy we pour into it. We will go after new people more forcefully.”

Britain will also increase its offer of technical help to allies to help them bolster their cyber infrastructure. “We already provide support for resilience for vulnerable countries, allies and others from cyber attacks and that's something that I think you'll certainly see more of,” Mr Raab said. The UK is set to increase funding to Commonwealth nations to invest in their cyber defences.

Drawing attention to the technical prowess of GCHQ, the National Cyber Force and the National Cyber Security Centre, the Foreign Secretary continued: “They've also got a USP [unique selling point], a comparative advantage, in defending against the way tech can be used to attack governments, but also our peoples and our businesses.”

The technical prowess of GCHQ and other security organisations gave Britain an edge against cyber criminals, said Mr Raab
The technical prowess of GCHQ and other security organisations gave Britain an edge against cyber criminals, said Mr Raab

In addition, Britain will step up the extent of intelligence it shares with like-minded democratic nations to alert them when their networks and systems have been compromised.

Mr Raab said: “We want to work with our partners – it’s a shared interest and, frankly, a shared enemy that is conducting these appalling attacks.”

Ransomware a growing concern

His intervention came days after two schools in Kent were forced to close following a ransomware attack, in which hackers broke into the schools’ servers and encrypted pupil information. Such assaults were “beyond the pale”, he warned, adding: “The UK will take the fight to cyber criminals who are extorting businesses, schools and hospitals.”

Highlighting the widespread and growing problem of ransomware, he went on: “We've had a series of ransomware attacks targeted at hospitals in Germany, schools in the UK, the US had a pipeline attacked, which has had a huge impact on the economy.

“So that’s a new area where I think the relationship between the US and UK can really lead globally.”

Britain and the US would discuss “how international law applies to those cyber attacks” and how to force a given state to punish malign cyber actors if they were operating within its jurisdiction.

Serving notice to the Kremlin that he had Moscow’s role in cyber attacks firmly in view, Mr Raab said: “Russia is a serial offender, but also we've seen it from Iran, China and others, and the confluence of state and non-state activities or criminal gangs, often for profit, but doing it with the umbrella of support from some of those states.”

He added that “the UK and the US will collaborate very closely,” while also looking to “bring in other countries”.

The Foreign Secretary is hoping to shape international law, with Britain aiming to take a leading role at the United Nations and G20 on the issue.

At present, only the UK, US and EU levy cyber sanctions – and these are not coordinated, although a push to align them is expected.

Mr Raab spoke to The Telegraph straight before joining Boris Johnson for bilateral talks with Mr Biden. Britain must show the US that it was a “dependable ally” and “demonstrate the value we add” on tech, cyber, defence and intelligence, the Foreign Secretary said.

US delivers rebuke over Northern Ireland Protocol

The meeting came after it emerged that the most senior American diplomat in the UK was ordered to issue an extraordinary formal rebuke to the Government for allegedly imperilling the peace process in Northern Ireland over Brexit.

The Foreign Secretary insisted the “Northern Ireland Protocol itself is the threat” to peace. Signalling the strength of the Government’s feeling on the issue, he declared that the territorial, economic and constitutional integrity of the UK was “not up for negotiation or haggling”.

However, Mr Raab defended the right of the US to weigh in on the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated as part of Brexit, which has sparked disruption to the flow of food, plants and other goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Issues surrounding the protocol have led to increasingly febrile wrangling between the UK and EU.

“We recognise the long-standing US interests as one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and the work of George Mitchell, the work of all of those US diplomats and indeed leaders. So I don't think we need to be overly sensitive about it,” he said.

The alliance between the UK and US was in an “excellent state” and there was no need to be “too hung up on labels” like the “special relationship” to describe it, he added. Mr Johnson recently declared he disliked the term, branding it needy and weak.

Quizzed about the drastic changes in the White House since Donald Trump’s departure, the Foreign Secretary welcomed Mr Biden’s decision to return the US to the Paris Agreement on climate change and to the World Health Organisation, as well as his robust support for Nato.

“We're more likely to effectively deliver what we want to in terms of the security of our peoples, in terms of dealing with climate change on a global level, in terms of dealing with this pandemic – it’s more likely to be effective if we work together,” he said.

The Royal Navy shows off its defences around the summit, with inflatable boats, jet skis and warships on patrol
The Royal Navy shows off its defences around the summit, with inflatable boats, jet skis and warships on patrol

The Foreign Secretary said the mood at the Carbis Bay Hotel, a “small, posh, bijou, beachside” establishment hosting the G7 summit, felt “pretty exciting”.

Leaders in the alliance have not been able to meet in person for almost two years because of the pandemic. The pandemic, tackling climate change and “grittier foreign policy issues” such as dealing with China’s conduct in Hong Kong required urgent discussion, Mr Raab said.

Setting out his own concerns about Hong Kong, he said the territory was on a “downward trajectory” and that “China is now in continuous breach of the Joint Declaration”, the agreement signed in 1984 on the governance of Hong Kong.

The Government's latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, published on Thursday night, said the decision to declare China to be in a “state of ongoing non-compliance” came after a series of three breaches.

The report said Beijing had displayed a pattern of behaviour “intended to crush dissent and suppress the expression of alternative political views in Hong Kong”.

It added that China had “broken its legal obligations by undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms, which are guaranteed under the Joint Declaration”.

Mr Raab also expressed his alarm about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, amid a surge in violence since the US began to withdraw its final troops on May 1.

Ten men working for the British mine clearance charity Halo were killed by masked gunmen this week in an attack claimed by Isil.

“We are concerned about the situation, we are watching it very closely,” he said.

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