Steerpike

Are MPs safe against a hack attack?

Are MPs safe against a hack attack?
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It’s parliamentary recess at present but the work doesn’t stop for MPs. Post bags and inboxes remain piled high, with our long-suffering legislators forced to slog through a backlog of Covid-related constituent issues.

Still, the stresses of the job are even greater for those five Tory MPs who have been sanctioned by the Chinese state. Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Nusrat Ghani and Tim Loughton were among a group of nine UK citizens to face sanctions in March for raising awareness of human rights abuses. The latter three are all members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) – a group of more than 200 legislators around the world, concerned about China's activities.

Sir Iain raised the issue of attacks against IPAC's members in Parliament last week when he asked an urgent question on the reported Chinese state-sponsored cyber-attack on Microsoft exchange servers. The former Tory leader said:

I understand now that there is intelligence from Five Eyes sources that shows that a very active and direct threat from the Chinese Government is aimed directly at the co-chairs of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. Some of the co-chairs, of which I am one, have now been warned by their intelligence services in receipt of this that they should be very careful and that they will be supported. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm whether his Government are in receipt of this same intelligence and, if so, why have they not informed the co-chairs and others here in the UK, as other allies have done?

James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister responding on behalf of the government, notably failed in his reply to address this point raised by IDS. Steerpike understands IPAC has been the subject of a number of probing attacks, with concerns about the British intelligence agencies sharing information about imminent attacks with legislators in others countries but not MPs in London. 

Foreign parliamentarians who have been targeted abroad have been offered assistance – something apparently denied to representatives in Westminster. Covert attacks have even tipped into the public arena with one of the Chinese embassy's senior diplomats, Ma Hui, going for Ghani back in February.

One source bemoaned how 'sanctioned MPs [here in Westminster] have received zero substantive help'  with MPs requesting security assistance which the Foreign Office is yet to provide. A government spokesperson told Steerpike that: 'All sanctioned MPs were offered a security briefing' with ministers understood to be offering a point of contact within the Foreign Office.  

But those affected are believed to be concerned about the lack of security against malware, given the 2017 cyber attack against Parliament and the number of sensitive emails received by MPs about issues such as the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims by the CCP. If such emails were hacked, they could easily compromise the source of confidential material. Sir Iain Duncan Smith said of the Foreign Office's response: 

No one has been in touch, at all. I think it's a disgrace. It's not so much protection – I know how to protect myself. The IPAC site has already been taken down now, twice I think, once by a DOS attack which is a Denial of Service which requires serious power to knock out a site completely, it's only normally government to government which does that sort of stuff so they targeted our main site. They're constantly trying to knock out our site, it's a constant process which we accept all that. The week that the government has admitted that China did the cyber attack on Microsoft sites, it beggars belief that they're not seen the same level as Russia, it's a joke to call them a competitor – they're not a competitor, they're a clear and present threat.

It's not just IDS who feels this way, as MPs depart for much-needed summer hols. A separate parliamentary source told Mr S: ‘The government’s lack of proactive measures to protect sanctioned MPs from cyberattacks is shocking. It speaks to a wider clumsy approach to looking after their own MPs against the CCP apparatus.’

Let's hope the ministers in questions have this resolved by the time Parliament resumes in September.

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to steerpike@spectator.co.uk or message @MrSteerpike

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