Ministers ‘too weak’ in response to massive Chinese 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 had access to the names and addresses of millions of voters.

Britain said it called on China’s ambassador to protest and said it was acting in coordination 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 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted: “This is sadly insufficient given the severity of the attack and the intentions behind it.

“Two individuals and one company are not a deterrent. Most of the measures mentioned were the result of efforts by the grassroots and parliament. “We now need import controls and a comprehensive sanctions regime.”

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

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

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted Beijing posed a “game-changing challenge” as Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden announced a travel ban and asset freeze on two unnamed Chinese individuals and a Chinese company the government said had links to the Chinese hacking group. APT31.

The Deputy Prime Minister told the House of Commons: “This email campaign from APT31 was blocked by Parliament’s cyber security measures. In this case it was a complete failure.

“However, any attack on Members of this House by foreign state actors is completely unacceptable.

“Taken together, Britain assesses that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behavior indicative of hostile intent from China.”

But the government was challenged by Conservative critics, including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, to take a much tougher stance, declaring that the communist regime poses a “strategic threat” to Britain.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London responded: “China’s so-called cyber attacks against Britain are completely fabricated and malicious slander. We strongly oppose such accusations.

“China has always vigorously combated all forms of cyber attacks, according to the law. China does not encourage, support or condone cyber attacks.”

Britain’s National Cyber ​​Security Center said APT31 (also known as Judgment Panda and Zirconium), a cyber actor previously linked by Britain and its allies to China’s Ministry of State Security, was “almost certainly responsible for carrying out online reconnaissance activities in 2021 against the email accounts of British parliamentarians”.

Most parliamentarians have played a prominent role in exposing China’s “malign activities”, the NCSC said.

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

Among them were Sir Iain and Tom Tugendhat, who now sits in the government as Security Secretary.

In addition, the NCSC said it had attributed the previously disclosed compromise of computer systems at the election commission between 2021 and 2022 to a “Chinese state-affiliated actor,” without naming it.

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

The names and addresses of 40 million voters were reportedly consulted, but cyber chiefs said election processes remained unaffected.

They also stressed that no parliamentary email account was successfully compromised in the operation which reportedly targeted 43 people, including MPs and colleagues.

Speaking on a visit to Barrow, in the north-west, Mr Sunak said: “We have been very clear that the situation now is that China is behaving increasingly assertively abroad, authoritarian at home and it represents a game-changing challenge. and also the greatest state-based threat to our economic security.

“So it is right that we take measures to protect ourselves, and that is what we are doing.”

However, Sir Iain accused the government of failing to heed the lessons of the 1930s. “Reconciliation never works,” he told reporters. “We must name everything,” demanded the former Tory leader, who demanded the formal designation of China as a “threat” on par with Russia and added: “The fact is that we are and have been too open.”

The government has shied away from escalating its stance on China despite pressure from MPs such as Sir Iain, who point to ongoing tensions in the former British colony of Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, in the South China Sea, over business information and in cyberspace.

Before Lord Cameron’s surprise return to government as Foreign Secretary, he lobbied for Chinese-backed development in Sri Lanka, while Nuclear Energy Secretary Andrew Bowie stressed on Monday that Chinese investment in Britain is still welcome, “on a case-by-case basis.” case”.

Mr Bowie stressed that the Government wants a “mature, pragmatic relationship” with Beijing, amid reports that China’s EVE Energy will invest in a battery factory in the West Midlands.

Lord Cameron said: “It is completely unacceptable that Chinese state-linked organizations and individuals have targeted our democratic institutions and political processes.

“While these attempts to disrupt British democracy have not been successful, we will remain vigilant and resilient in the face of the threats we face.”

But one of the Tory MPs sanctioned by China called for sanctions against a “range of senior Chinese officials” to stop Beijing from targeting the British political system.

Tim Loughton, a member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, argued that tough action is “the only language the Chinese government actually understands”.

Sir Iain, Mr Loughton, his colleague Lord Alton and SNP MP Stewart McDonald were previously summoned to a briefing by Parliament’s security director Alison Giles in relation to China’s alleged activities.

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

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

“I think it is the most dangerous nation in the world when it comes to a whole range of issues, security but also climate change.

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

“That is the only language the Chinese government actually understands and if you say that all this is not so good, you can do better, they will laugh at you.”

Meanwhile, reforms to the UK’s spy laws continue to make their way through Parliament, with the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill also before the House of Commons on Monday.

The legislation includes measures to make it easier for agencies to investigate and preserve bulk data sets, such as publicly available online phone records.

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