The British government has accused Russian intelligence services of a large-scale hacking operation aimed at undermining the British political system.
This wave of attacks is believed to have started in 2015 with targeted attacks on politicians, including attempts to convince them to reveal confidential information by pretending to be a trusted party.
Known victims of the attacks include the Institute for Statecraft think tank, which worked to counter Russian disinformation, and its founder Christopher Donnelly.
Hundreds of other politicians, journalists, civil servants and members of NGOs are also believed to have been affected.
Officials in Britain and the United States have seen no evidence of the intent behind the hackers to collect information from British public and political figures, but there are concerns that the mass of information collected could be used in an attempt to influence next year’s general election.
A large amount of data has been collected by people operating on behalf of the Russian intelligence service, according to a Western official who spoke to Sky News.
Who is behind the attacks?
Russia’s FSB Center 18 has been named by Britain as the source of the attacks.
In intelligence circles, it also goes by the names Iron Frontier and Star Blizzard.
The UK has named two specific members: Ruslan Aleksandrovich Peretyatko and Andrey Stanislavovich Korinets.
The FSB, or Federal Security Service, is Moscow’s spy agency.
A previous report to the US Congress on Russian cyber units identified Center 18 as one of two primary hubs overseeing the FSB’s security and cyber operations, along with Center 16.
Read more here.
‘Possibility’ for election interruption
“We are entering an election year,” the official said.
“We want this [hack and leak threat] more into the bloodstream – so people are more aware.”
Asked if the hackers had information they could leak to try to disrupt the election next year, the official said: “There is no evidence of that intent. There is that possibility. They have collected a lot of information.”
The information accessed is not limited to emails – it also includes private files and confidential information about contacts.
Only a small portion of the significant amount of personal data is believed to have been leaked, leaving a significant amount of personal information about public figures at the hackers’ disposal to release at a later date.
The concern is that this date could coincide with Britain’s general election next year.
Increasingly sophisticated attacks
Public officials are right to spread the word about the cybersecurity threat arising from advances in technology that make phishing attacks increasingly credible.
This message must be accompanied by efforts to improve literacy about what these attacks look like, but here another problem arises.
Cyber attacks are becoming so sophisticated, targeted and frequent that individuals cannot always be expected to be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is a scam.
So any effort to improve literacy must also recognize that individuals cannot be fully responsible for recognizing them and that intervention by policymakers is needed to identify and avert these attacks.