International News

China At Heart Of Major UK Cyber Attacks, Security Services Find

Jamie Whitwell

On Monday 25th April, 2021, the British government blamed China for two separate cyberattacks targeting the UK’s Electoral Commission and several parliamentarians. The government has summoned the Chinese Ambassador in London to explain the developments.

The government has suggested that whilst the attack had not compromised the security of the UK’s elections, it represents the latest Chinese attempt to strike out at British cyberinfrastructure. Reports have suggested that 40 million voters’ data was accessed. An official government statement has described the attack as “the latest in a clear pattern of malicious cyber activity by Chinese state-affiliated organisations and individuals.”

Home Secretary, James Cleverly, lauded the resilience of the UK’s 2023 National Security Act and its Defending Democracy Taskforce. These were initiated in response to the transforming cyber threats that the UK faced. However, he lambasted China’s attempts to “target our democratic institutions,” and lamented efforts at “espionage”.

Sanctions […] been placed on two individuals and one company

The UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, announced that sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans have been placed on two individuals and one company. The company named had links with Chinese state-sponsored cyber-group, Advanced Persistent Threat Group 31 (APT31), of which the individuals were also connected. The sanctions join the growing list of Chinese officials, individuals, and companies currently being punished by the UK for what it perceives to be hostile behaviour.

The Chinese Embassy in London has dismissed the accusations as “fabricated” and “slanderous”. The embassy asserted Beijing’s condemnation of cyberattacks, whilst rendering the UK’s finger-pointing a “political farce”. China itself has been at the receiving end of cyberattacks. Although it is not clear the extent to which it has been targeted by state-sponsored groups, the Chinese government has argued nation-state cyberattacks are a significant threat to its national security.

“A little bit reluctant to say that China had done this” [Luke de Poulford]

Whilst the two cyberattacks were discovered in 2022, the identification of the culprit had been obfuscated until the  morning of Monday 25th. Executive Director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), Luke de Poulford, has suggested that the British government “was a little bit reluctant to say that China had done this.”

The Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, branded the attacks as “unacceptable”. However, he has been levelled with criticism over his role in vitalising Sino-British relations whilst Primer Minister. Lord Cameron ushered in a ‘golden era’ of official state visits and economic integration with the Chinese government. Even as Foreign Secretary, there are concerns that his enduring links with China could complicate the UK’s foreign policy.

The Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping, visited the UK with the “reddest of red carpets” in 2015 – meeting with significant government officials and the Royal Family. George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, also travelled to China in 2015. He visited the Xinjiang region in Northwest China, controversial for its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population.

The ‘golden era’ of relations has also been referred to as the ‘Osborne Doctrine’. The Chancellor was the chief architect of the UK’s China policy under David Cameron. A Financial Times investigation implicated four Members of the House of Lords, with intrinsic business interests in China, as behind Osborne and the government’s foreign policy at the time.

The government have banned Chinese technology firm Huawei’s equipment from its infrastructure

Monday 25th’s announcement alongside sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang in 2021 indicates the ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations is firmly over. The government have banned Chinese technology firm Huawei’s equipment from its infrastructure, citing national security concerns. However, critics suggest that a tough stance on China is difficult because of considerable economic interdependence.

The attack comes as concerned governments across the world look to respond to malevolent cyberattacks. The United States, also on Monday, proposed further sanctions against APT31 after charging seven Chinese nationals with the conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and wire fraud. The U.S. Department of Justice situated APT31 at the centre of a wider hacking conspiracy against prominent groups and individuals over 14 years. In 2018, over 10,000 e-mails were sent to U.S. Officials and their advisors with embedded links that would enable data theft. This is commonly known as phishing.

China denies all involvement

The New Zealand government announced on Tuesday that they had been the victims of a Chinese cyber-attack. In a similar vein to the attacks on the U.S. and UK, China denies all involvement. However, New Zealand’s intelligence agency has “confidently linked” the attack to China.

As Western administrations look to grapple with the evolving threat cyberattacks pose, they must also balance the diplomatic fallout it entails. Dependent on China for goods, services, and investment, the UK may struggle to form a consensus on the right way to respond to the attack. Even within the Conservative Party, there is a vast divide between the more hawkish members and those who advocate for closer economic ties. Without a coherent response, the UK will be unable to formulate an efficient strategy.

Jamie Whitwell

Featured image courtesy of Alejandro Luengo via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

For more content including Uni News, Reviews, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.

To keep up to date with all the latest Impact News, you can also follow us on the Impact News’  FacebookInstagram and Twitter page.

International NewsNational NewsNews

Leave a Reply