Largest cyber attack on Parliament to date prompts fears of major national security compromise

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox stressed that “it’s a warning to everybody, whether they are in Parliament or elsewhere that they need to do everything possible to maintain their own cyber security.”

 

MPs took to Twitter and social media to notify their constituents as their parliamentary email accounts were besieged by a concerted 12-hour ‘brute force’ cyberattack targeting ‘weak passwords.’

On Friday night, parliamentary officials “discovered unauthorised attempts to access accounts of parliamentary networks users.” In response, remote access to the network was cut off, meaning that MPs and aides could not access their official email accounts outside of Westminster.

Parliamentary officials have been working with the National Cyber Security Centre, part of intelligence agency GCHQ, to investigate the attempted breach and assess the potential compromise to national security.

The NCSC’s latest statement on their website, as of Saturday, reads:

The NCSC is aware of an incident and is working around the clock with the UK Parliamentary digital security team to understand what has happened and advise on the necessary mitigating actions.

It is still unclear whether the attempts were successful, or whether any confidential information in the network has been acquired. Moreover, MPs and cyber specialists can only speculate as to the identity of the cyber-attackers.

However, whether those responsible for the attack are foreign ‘state actors’ or organised criminals, the compromise to the confidentiality of private or personal information and national security details is a major risk. Security advisors have warned that the parliamentary email network is a ‘treasure trove’ of information not only for blackmailers, but also for hostile states, crime syndicates and terrorist organisations.

Many Twitter users following the story have been quick to link this attempted breach to Russian state agencies (some using the hashtag #russia), citing interference in European and American elections, as well as the cyberattack on the German Bundestag in 2015, as prior examples of similar assaults on democratic institutions. However, the relatively rudimentary nature of the ‘brute force’ attempted password hacks on Parliament on Friday contrasts, for instance, with the sophisticated attempt to install remote data monitoring software onto the German state’s computer systems two years ago, which German authorities blamed on Russian agents.

While government sources have stated that it is too early to draw conclusions regarding the fallout of the event or the perpetrators, MPs have acknowledged the extent of the threat posed by cybercrime. Tory MP for NW Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, stated, “if people thought our emails were not secure it would seriously undermine our constituents’ confidence and trust in approaching their MP at a time of crisis.”

Referencing the ‘WannaCry’ attack on 48 NHS hospitals only a month ago, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said it was ‘no surprise’ that Parliament would face hacking attempts given the recent attack on our public services.

In the Queen’s Speech last week, the government outlined plans to improve data protection with a new Data Protection Bill, but this did not provide details of plans to counter threats of largescale hacking or cybercrime at home or abroad.

The government indicated, however, that they hoped the new law would help them to collaborate with former EU partners and international allies in order to confront threats to global security, threats in which cyber-conflict plays an increasingly prominent role. It may well be that these measures are following up the government’s statement in 2015 in the National Security Strategy that cyber-attacks from both organised crime and foreign intelligence agencies are one of the “most significant risks to UK interests.”

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