Russian spies have been carrying out “sustained” cyber attacks on high-profile politicians in an attempt to interfere with British democracy, the Government warned as it denounced “unacceptable” Kremlin interference.
Sources said the hacking and “spear-fishing” attacks conducted by an group called Star Blizzard backed by Russia’s FSB spy agency had been directed at “large number of high-profile victims, many of whom are recognisable names across the political parties.”
They added that the attacks — which had also been aimed at civil servants, the media, civil society organisations and others — had focused on the politicians’ personal emails and had obtained and leaked the private communications of some of the “hundreds” of victims targeted.
They said the attempt was to undermine trust in politics in the UK and of Britain’s allies and that the attacks had been going on since at least 2015.
But as ministers announced that the Russian ambassador was being summoned for a dressing down and that new sanctions were being imposed, including on an active FSB intelligence officer, they insisted that the attacks had not succeeded in interfering with any elections so far.
They said instead that Thursday’s alert was intended to raise the alarm ahead of the likely general election here next year and elections elsewhere in the world including the US.
Sources said the dangers included the use of artificial intelligence and “disinformation that could shift public sentiment during elections” and that the capabilities of the Russia’s hackers were increasing.
Thursday’s warning will heighten concern about the potential impact of Kremlin-spread conspiracy theories and other false claims online and follows earlier warnings about Russia’s malign intent towards this country and Western allies.
Star Blizzard is a group which is run by the FSB and is also known by other names including Coldriver, Seaborgium and Blue River.
Sources said that none of the MPs targeted were being named immediately but that some might volunteer to disclose their identities and that they included high-profile victims from different parties.
Suspected far-Right extremists, including many children, account for nearly half of the people put on the Government’s most intensive de-radicalisation programme, new figures revealed today.
The Home Office statistics show that 46 per cent of the 645 people put on the Channel counter-extremism scheme in the 12 months to the end of March were sent there because of concerns about their “extreme Right-wing” behaviour.
Some of those referred to the programme — which is most intensive part of the Government’s Prevent scheme for identifying those to either engaged in or at risk of extremism — were aged under 10. Many others aged between 11 and 15.
Thursday’s figures will reinforce concerns about the rising number of young people becoming lured by far-Right and other forms of extremism.
Condemning the Kremlin-backed cyber offensive, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said: Russia’s attempts to interfere in UK politics are completely unacceptable and seek to threaten our democratic processes.
“Despite their repeated efforts, they have failed. In sanctioning those responsible and summoning the Russian Ambassador today, we are exposing their malign attempts at influence and shining a light on yet another example of how Russia chooses to operate on the global stage.
“We will continue to work together with our allies to expose Russian covert cyber activity and hold Russia to account for its actions.”
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden added: “As I warned earlier this year, state actors, and the ‘Wagner-style’ sub-state hackers they use to do their dirty work, will continue to target our public institutions and our democratic processes.
“We will continue to call this activity out, to raise our defences, and to take action against the perpetrators.
“Online is the new frontline. We are taking a whole of society approach to ensuring we have the robust systems and cutting-edge skills needed to resist these attempts to undermine our democracy.”
The two Russians being sanctioned were named by the Foreign Office as Ruslan Aleksandrovich Peretyatko, who it described as "a Russian FSB intelligence officer and a member of Star Blizzard AKA the Callisto Group."
The other is Andrey Stanislavovich Korinets, also known as Alexey Doguzhiev, who was described as "a member of Star Blizzard AKA the Callisto Group".