Hunt warns of risk to democracies from state-backed online attacks

Democratic elections are viewed by hostile states as “key vulnerabilities” to be targeted through cyber attacks, Jeremy Hunt will warn.

The Foreign Secretary will say that authoritarian regimes risk undermining Western democracies, turning elections into “tainted exercises”, although he will stress that there is no evidence of successful interference in UK polls.

Mr Hunt will also say that as well as publicly shaming states involved in cyber attacks – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have already been named as being behind various hacks and online campaigns in recent years – economic and diplomatic sanctions should also be part of the response.

“Events have demonstrated how our adversaries regard free elections – and the very openness of a democratic system – as key vulnerabilities to be exploited,” Mr Hunt will say in a speech in Glasgow.

“Authoritarian regimes possess ways of undermining free societies that yesterday’s dictators would have envied.”

The UK blamed Russia’s GRU intelligence agency for the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails in the run-up to the US elections in 2016.

But Mr Hunt will say: “For every example of publicly attributed interference, there have been others that never saw the light of day… the implications are profoundly disturbing.

“At a minimum, trust in the democratic process is seriously undermined. But in a worst case scenario, elections could become tainted exercises, robbing the governments they produce of legitimacy.”

The Foreign Secretary will say that a “doctrine of deterrence” is needed to show states running cyber campaigns that they run a “credible risk of additional counter-measures – economic and diplomatic – over and above public embarrassment”.

He will also highlight the UK’s own offensive cyber capabilities, which have been used against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

He will add that the Government is expanding its network of “cyber attachés” – diplomats working with governments around the world on addressing the problem.

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