Tugendhat in warning over safety of MPs’ emails from cyber attacks

David Hughes and Patrick Daly, PA
·4-min read

A senior MP has claimed that Parliament’s email system is less secure than Google’s Gmail as he warned China was attacking the UK’s democracy.

Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said Parliament and the UK Government needed to do more to defend democracy and freedom of speech.

Mr Tugendhat, who was targeted with sanctions by Beijing in retaliation for British measures imposed over human rights abuses in Xinjiang province, claimed to have been the victim of Chinese “psyops” – psychological operations – including spoof emails to fellow MPs.

Foreign Affairs Committee in NI
Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Tugendhat said: “I was told by friends at GCHQ – not formally, I admit – that I was better off sticking to Gmail rather than using the parliamentary system because it was more secure.

“Frankly, that tells you the level of security and the priority we are giving to democracy in the United Kingdom.”

Parliamentary officials insisted the Westminster email system offered significantly greater protection than external providers, and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said MPs should continue to rely on it.

An urgent question was granted in the Commons on Tuesday after Beijing imposed sanctions against nine British critics – including five MPs and two peers – banning them from entering China and Hong Kong.

Mr Tugendhat said: “The sanctions that the UK Government has applied on China are being applied for violations of human rights – actions, in other words. Actually brutalising people, actually murdering people, actually doing physical harm to people.

“The sanctions China has applied are for speaking. They are for calling out the violation of Chinese citizens, or the brutality towards the Chinese Uighur population.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today, Mr Tugendhat said: “What the British Government and Parliament has to respond to is defending freedom of speech in the UK.

“Now last week, emails were sent round claiming to be from me, claiming that I had resigned from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which of course I haven’t, and many other cyber attacks have been perpetrated either on me or on others – attacks of impersonation, attacks on certain accounts and various other things.”

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Mr Tugendhat also suggested Iran was involved in similar actions.

“It has been happening for about two or three years – in fact, it is not just China that has done it.”

When the email was sent to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee announcing his “resignation” on April 9, Mr Tugendhat said: “This is what China’s psyops looks like.”

The email was understood to have come from a personal AOL account impersonating Mr Tugendhat, rather than his parliamentary email address.

Cyber security experts from the NCSC work with the Parliamentary Digital Service on the systems in Westminster.

A parliamentary spokesman said: “We have robust cybersecurity measures in place and work closely with partners in the National Cyber Security Centre.

“In line with guidance from the NCSC we would always encourage MPs to use parliamentary emails, which offers significantly higher levels of security than external providers.”

An NCSC spokesman said the parliamentary system follows “best practice” and “MPs should continue to use it”.

During the urgent question, Conservative former minister Tim Loughton called the sanctions placed on him and other parliamentarians by China “laughable”.

After criticising China’s human rights record, Mr Loughton added: “To be sanctioned by a totalitarian regime is not only deeply ironic and laughable, but it is an abuse of parliamentary privilege of this House by a foreign regime.”

Foreign Office Minister Nigel Adams said the Government “stands in complete solidarity with those sanctioned by China”.

Mr Adams added the Government will not allow the sanctions to “distract attention from the gross human rights violations” taking place.

He told the Commons: “Just as this Government will be unbowed by China’s actions, I have no doubt that members across this House will be undeterred in raising their fully justified concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and the human rights situation in China more broadly.

“I applaud the parliamentarians named by China.”

For Labour, shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Kinnock claimed the UK has “no strategy on China at home and no strategy on China abroad”.

He asked: “Will the Government now commit to an audit of every aspect of the UK-China relationship, so that we can finally call time on the Conservatives’ failed golden era strategy and replace weakness, division and inconsistency with an approach that is instead based on strength, unity and consistency?”