GCHQ – the UK's equivalent of the National Security Agency – will hold an emergency summit with the UK's political parties after spies warned that the country's next general election will be vulnerable to Russian cyberattacks, according to a report on Sunday (12 March). The news follows a number of allegations of hacking made against the Kremlin in recent months.

The Sunday Times quotes British security services as having categorised protection of the UK's political system as "priority work". GCHQ spies will now reportedly hold a "technical seminar" with parties to help them secure their networks.

In a letter from Ciaran Martin, the chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), to leaders of the main political parties, he wrote: "You will be aware of the coverage of events in the United States, Germany and elsewhere reminding us of the potential for hostile action against the UK political system.

"This is not just about the network security of political parties' own systems. Attacks against our democratic processes go beyond this and can include attacks on parliament, constituency offices, think tanks and pressure groups and individuals' email accounts."

News of UK concerns around Russian intervention in the democratic process follow reports by the CIA that Russia was involved in leaks of emails from Hilary Clinton's campaign team, which are believed to have helped President Donald Trump secure a shock victory in November. Both Trump and Russia have strenuously denied the claims.

German intelligence sources have also warned of a threat by Russia to its upcoming federal elections and Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek also said evidence suggested a breach of the email accounts at the foreign ministry resembling those carried out in the US.

The wealth of information held by political parties and potentially at the disposal of any organisation hoping to influence voting could include personal voter details, such as political interests, which could be used in targeted campaigns.

Though accusations of Kremlin-sanctioned security breaches seem to be recent developments the US former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told The Washington Post last year: "There is a tradition in Russia of trying to interfere in elections, their own and others, so it shouldn't come as a big shock to people.

He added: "I think it's more dramatic now because now they have cyber tools."

Ciaran Martin
Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), has written to leaders of the main political parties REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay