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Ministers 'too weak' in response to massive China cyber attack on election watchdog

Ministers 'too weak' in response to massive China cyber attack on election watchdog

Ministers were accused of being too weak in their response to China after a cyber attack on Britain’s election watchdog which accessed the names and address of millions of voters.

The UK said it was summoning China’s ambassador to protest and said it was acting in concert with its “Five Eyes” intelligence partners including the United States, which said it was imposing cyber-related sanctions on China’s Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science And Technology Company Ltd and two Chinese nationals.

But Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, tweeted: “This is sadly insufficient given the severity of the attack and the intent behind them.

“Two individuals and one firm is not deterrence. Most of the measures cited were the result of backbench and Parliamentary efforts.“We need import controls and a comprehensive sanctions regime, now.”

The US Treasury Department said the Wuhan company was a front for the Hubei province branch of China's Ministry of State Security.

“Through our whole-of-government approach and in close coordination with our British partners, Treasury will continue to leverage our tools to expose these networks and protect against these threats,” Treasury Under Secretary Brian Nelson said in a statement.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stressed that Beijing posed an “epoch-defining challenge”, as Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden announced a travel ban and assets freeze against two unnamed Chinese individuals and a Chinese company, which the Government said was linked to the Chinese hacking group APT31.

The Deputy Prime Minister told the Commons: "This email campaign by APT31 was blocked by Parliament's cybersecurity measures. In this case it was entirely unsuccessful.

"However, any targeting of Members of this House by foreign state actors is completely unacceptable.

"Taken together, the United Kingdom judges that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour that signals hostile intent from China.”

But the Government was challenged by Conservative critics including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith to take a much harder line by declaring that the communist regime poses a “strategic threat” against the UK.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London responded: "The so-called cyber attacks by China against the UK are completely fabricated and malicious slanders. We strongly oppose such accusations.

“China has always firmly fought all forms of cyber attacks according to law. China does not encourage, support or condone cyber attacks."

Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre said that APT31 (also known as Judgement Panda and Zirconium), a cyber actor previously linked by Britain and its allies to the Chinese Ministry of State Security, was “almost certainly responsible for conducting online reconnaissance activity in 2021 against the email accounts of UK parliamentarians”.

Most of the parliamentarians have been prominent in calling out China’s “malign activity”, the NCSC said.

Three years ago, nine UK citizens including five Tory MPs and two members of the House of Lords were sanctioned by China for spreading what it called “lies and disinformation” about the country’s treatment of the Uighur minority.

They included Sir Iain and Tom Tugendhat, who is now part of the Government as Security Minister.

Separately, the NCSC said it had attributed the previously disclosed compromise of computer systems at the Electoral Commission between 2021 and 2022 to a “China state-affiliated actor”, without naming it

“The data, in combination with other data sources, would highly likely be used by the Chinese intelligence services for a range of purposes, including large-scale espionage and transnational repression of perceived dissidents and critics in the UK,” the NCSC said.

The names and addresses of 40 million voters were reportedly accessed, but the cyber chiefs said that electoral processes were unaffected.

They also stressed that no parliamentary email accounts were successfully compromised in the operation that reportedly targeted 43 people including MPs and peers.

Speaking on a visit to Barrow, in the North West, Mr Sunak said: “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.”

Sir Iain, however, accused the Government of failing to heed the lessons of the 1930s. “Appeasement never works,” he told reporters. “We need to call a spade a spade,” the former Tory leader, demanding the formal designation of China as a “threat” akin to Russia and adding: “The fact is we are and have been too open.”

The Government has shied away from escalating its stance on China despite the pressure of MPs such as Sir Iain who cite ongoing tensions in the former UK colony of Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, in the South China Sea, in corporate intelligence and across cyberspace.

Lord Cameron, before his surprise return to government as Foreign Secretary, lobbied for a China-backed development in Sri Lanka while Nuclear Minister Andrew Bowie on Monday stressed that Chinese investment in Britain was still welcome on a “case by case basis”.

Mr Bowie insisted the Government wanted a “grown-up, pragmatic relationship” with Beijing amid reports China’s EVE Energy is set to invest in a battery plant in the West Midlands.

Lord Cameron said: “It is completely unacceptable that China state-affiliated organisations and individuals have targeted our democratic institutions and political processes.

“While these attempts to interfere with UK democracy have not been successful, we will remain vigilant and resilient to the threats we face.”

But one of the Tory MPs sanctioned by China called for a “whole raft of senior Chinese officials” to be hit with sanctions to stop Beijing targeting Britain’s political system.

Tim Loughton, who sits on the Commons home affairs committee, argued that tough action is “the only language that the Chinese government actually understand”.

Sir Iain, Mr Loughton, crossbench peer Lord Alton and SNP MP Stewart McDonald were earlier called to a briefing by Parliament’s director of security, Alison Giles, in relation to China’s alleged activity.

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

Speaking on BBC radio’s Westminster Hour, Mr Loughton said: “China is a strategic threat.

“I think it is the most dangerous nation on the planet across a whole range of issues, security but also climate change.

“But the trouble with the Chinese Communist Party government is that you have to call them out, you have to stand up to them and there have to be consequences.

“That is the only language that the Chinese government actually understand and if you just say all this is not very good could you do better please then they laugh in your face.”

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.