British ministers use private email that is vulnerable to Russian hacking

  • UK ministers who use private email are vulnerable to email hacking, a former security official said.
  • At least two former ministers recently admitted using private email to conduct government business.
  • Suspected Russian hackers stole the entire inbox of a former British cabinet minister in 2019.

Poor email security among senior UK ministers makes them a prime target for hackers, a former national security official warned.

The official suggested that ministers had not adequately protected themselves in the two years since suspected Russian cyber attackers stole the entire contents of a former cabinet minister’s email account.

Secret trade documents leaked on Reddit were used during the 2019 general election by former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn as evidence that the ruling Conservative party was planning to sell the UK’s popular National Health Service.

The National Crime Agency opened a criminal investigation into the hack, and Reuters reported that the documents were from a ”

Attack “from an email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former trade secretary, who confirmed the documents were genuine.

More than a year after the National Crime Agency opened a criminal investigation into the alleged Russian hacker attack, a spokesman for the organization told Insider that the investigation was “ongoing.”

Sources told Reuters that the operation carried the hallmarks of a government-sponsored cyberattack, but that remains unconfirmed.

Some ministers have also continued to use private email accounts to conduct government business, with former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former Junior Health Secretary James Bethell both confirming that they used personal email addresses to conduct government business on sensitive issues such as vaccine contracts.

Hancock has been directed to hand over his personal emails and WhatsApp messages as part of a lawsuit from the Good Law Project in contracts awarded during the pandemic.

A former senior UK National Security official who asked not to be named in order to speak openly told Insider that the poor email security of ministers remains a concern. The official said the use of private accounts increases the risk of hacking by foreign intelligence agencies.

“On more sensitive issues that may be of interest to foreign intelligence agencies – vaccines and so on – it is extremely unwise to forward things to your personal email address,” said the former official.

“This frees you from the protection of the departments. Celebrity politicians, unlike the rest of us, are targeted to their personal emails. Gmail, for example, is reasonably secure. But it’s not safe if the phone or laptop you’re working on has been compromised.

“It’s not an issue for most people. The Russians don’t target most people. But they are interested in cabinet ministers.”

Jack Stubbs, director of investigations at the social media analytics company Graphika, said the Fox email hack showed the threat of Russian hacking.

It is what a suspected Russian cyberattack actually came closest to the result of a British general election.

“The UK dodged a bullet in 2019,” he told Insider.

“The hack-and-leak operation targeting this year’s general election is one of the most direct examples of alleged Russian attempts to meddle in British politics.

“If the vote had been more competitive or even gone the other way, there would have been serious and difficult questions to answer about the impact of these leaked documents on the final election result.”

The former security official said it was not surprising that the investigation into Fox’s hacking dragged on for over a year as the purpose of announcing an investigation was to embarrass Russia rather than bring criminal charges against individuals.

The official said the practice of high-profile investigations was inspired by the US, where a more politicized Justice Department made it easier to bring high-profile charges against Russian actors.

When asked by Insider whether the government was confident that private communications were secure, the prime minister’s spokesman said ministers “use a variety of modern forms of communication for discussion. Obviously, sensitive discussions are conducted as set out in the minutes . “

The spokesman declined to elaborate on the details of the protocols.

“We do not go into the details of security issues, but there are appropriate arrangements and guidelines for managing electronic communications and ministers are being advised on their security,” he said.

He did not address cases like Hancock and Bethell, where ministers ignored guidance on using private email anyway.

The latest document published by the government on the use of private email by ministers was issued by the Cabinet Office in June 2013. It almost doesn’t mention security.


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