UK to reform spy laws to tackle threats from cyber and state influence

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State Opening of Parliament in London
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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will overhaul its espionage laws in the face of threats to national security ranging from cyber-attacks to pernicious lobbying that could undermine its economy, the country's interior minister said on Wednesday.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the reforms would include the creation of a new Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, similar to ones in the United States and Australia, to reduce the risk of foreign governments damaging Britain's interests.

Patel said the new laws, coupled with more powerful tools for Britain's police and intelligence agencies, "will be critical to help those on the front line deal with the threats we are constantly facing."

Britain's domestic spy service MI5 warned lawmakers in January that the Chinese Communist Party had employed a woman to exert improper influence over members of parliament.

The new legislation would make it an offence to be an undeclared foreign spy, introduce a new foreign interference offence and widen responses to the use of drones and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure and other targets.

It will also allow courts to impose longer sentences for foreign state-backed crimes, the interior ministry said.

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said existing espionage laws were being skirted by cyber-espionage experts.

"State actors are stealing not only national security secrets, but our cutting-edge science, research and technology. They are attempting to interfere covertly with our democracy, economy and society," McCallum said.

The planned reforms would also restrict the access of people convicted of terror offences from claiming civil legal aid.

(Writing by William Schomberg. Editing by Jane Merriman)

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