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- UK accuses Russia’s Security Service of sustained cyber-hacking campaign, targeting politicians and others in public life
- The group also carried out hundreds of highly targeted hacks against those working for think-tanks, journalists and academics.
- Russian ambassador to UK summoned but officials told he was “unavailable”
- One group stole data through cyber-attacks, which was later made public, including material linked to the 2019 election.
London: Russia’s spy agency has meddled in British politics and democratic processes by hacking hundreds of MPs, civil servants and other public figures in a near-decade long “sustained” cyber campaign, the UK government said on Thursday.
The Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, is accused of having orchestrated a massive hacking campaign since 2015, targeting the personal email accounts of high-profile individuals, including journalists, and stealing private information. Universities, public sector organisations and international charities were also targeted.
Britain says Russia tried to interference in its 2019 election. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson concluded his victory speech after the polls close.Credit: Getty Images
Foreign Office minister Leo Docherty announced the government had sanctioned two Russians involved in the operation, FSB intelligence officer Ruslan Aleksandrovich Peretyatko and Andrey Stanislavovich Korinets – and summoned the country’s ambassador, Andrey Kelin, to express its “deep concern” about Russia’s cyber activities “in the UK and beyond”.
Kelin was reportedly unavailable when summoned and officials instead met the Russian Embassy’s deputy head of mission.
Within hours, Washington announced the same two men had been charged with attempting to hack the computers of employees of multiple US government agencies and allied countries around the world, in part to steal and release documents to interfere with elections in Britain in 2019.
Officials said the two men are at large and believed to be in Russia. They are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Both also face financial sanctions in the US and UK.
Sanctioned: FSB intelligence officer Ruslan Aleksandrovich Peretyatko and Andrey Stanislavovich Korinets.
In a statement, the UK foreign office said the FSB, the successor agency of the notorious KGB, was behind hundreds of unsuccessful attempts to interfere in UK political processes, including the 2019 election, and had compromised the private communications of an array of high-profile figures and used stolen information obtained through the hacks to “meddle in British politics”.
Docherty said the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere in UK politics were completely unacceptable and sought to threaten democratic processes.
“Despite their repeated efforts, they have failed,” he told the House of Commons, adding the UK was “exposing their malign attempts at influence and shining a light on yet another example of how Russia chooses to operate on the global stage”.
The FSB’s Centre 18 unit led the operation, while hacks on targeted cross-party parliamentarians were carried out by Star Blizzard, a cyber group that the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has assessed is “almost certainly subordinate to Centre 18”.
Following the announcement, the National Cyber Security Centre and partner agencies in the Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand issued fresh cybersecurity advice, sharing technical details about how cyberattacks are carried out and methods of mitigating them.
Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn referenced the hacked documents.Credit: PA
The groupfrequently mounted spear-phishing attacks on the personal, rather than professional, email addresses of its targets and tailored its approach in a “far more sophisticated way” than is usual for this type of hack carried out by cyber crime groups.
Using these means, Star Blizzard had “selectively leaked and amplified the release of sensitive information in the service of Russia’s goals of confrontation”, the government said.
Britain has previously accused Russia of using these tactics after hackers amplified documents about UK-US trade talks stolen from the email account of then-trade minister Liam Fox in the run-up to the 2019 general election, when Britain was trying to leave the European Union and strike trade deals of its own.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed to trade documents — which he said he received through a Freedom of Information request — as evidence that Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party “were going to sell our National Health Service out to the United States and big pharma”.
Docherty said the Russian hackers had undertaken “thorough research and preparation, including via social media and networking” before setting up false accounts and impersonating contacts to “appear legitimate” as they built a “rapport before delivering a link to a malicious document or website or interest”.
The accusation by the two countries is designed to disrupt the activities of the FSB group by exposing them. Sources familiar with the investigation said it had taken some months for the US and UK to establish with high-enough confidence that FSB Centre 18 was responsible and to co-ordinate public announcements about the activity.
Russia has sought to strengthen its global spy network since President Vladimir Putin, a director of the FSB for a period in the 1990s, came to power in 2000.
Star Blizzard is also accused of hacking and leaking documents from the account of the think-tank’s founder Christopher Donnelly, whose account was compromised in 2021. The UK government has informed the other victims of the hacking attacks, believed to run into the hundreds, but is not expected to name them.
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