Chinese and Russian spies will target MP candidates at election, warns GCHQ

The National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ as said election candidates will be 'high-risk' targets - David Goddard/Getty Images

Chinese and Russian spies will try to target would-be MPs ahead of the general election, GCHQ bosses fear.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), an arm of GCHQ, has announced a new “cyber defence service” on offer to political candidates and polling officials in advance of the election.

Candidates will be able to have an additional layer of security on personal devices, such as their mobile phones, which will warn them if they try to visit a website known to be “malicious” by the security services.

The measures will guard against potential spear-phishing, malware and other cyber attacks, the NCSC has said, as it warned that would-be MPs and election officials were at “high risk”.

The organisation warned that “the personal accounts of candidates and election officials, as well as their official work accounts, are almost certainly attractive targets for cyber actors looking to carry out espionage operations”.

It said that the launch of the new opt-in service followed government announcements of attempts by “Russian Intelligence Services and China state-affiliated actors to carry out malicious activity targeting UK institutions and individuals, including parliamentarians”.

Spies target emails

It comes after it emerged earlier this year that GCHQ believed APT31, a China state-affiliated actor, was almost certainly responsible for targeting the emails of parliamentarians in 2021.

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, told MPs that hackers affiliated to the Chinese state were also responsible for a hack on the Electoral Commission between 2021 and 2022.

At the time, he said that the two attacks demonstrated a “clear and persistent pattern of behaviour that signals hostile intent from China”, and announced a raft of sanctions in response.

News from last week that the Ministry of Defence had been subject to a hack also prompted speculation that Beijing was responsible, but the Government is yet to attribute the attack to a specific actor.

Last year, the UK also condemned Moscow’s “sustained attempts at political interference” in the UK and globally, citing efforts to target parliamentarians, civil servants and journalists.

The NCSC already offers support to MPs and public sector staff, and has previously encouraged those at high risk to register their online accounts so that the organisation can alert them to any “malicious activity”.

MPs were reminded of the available support after the Westminster honeytrap scandal erupted in April, in which several men in Parliament received suspicious messages on WhatsApp from those using the aliases “Charlie” and “Abi”. It is not currently known who was behind the string of messages.

Jonathan Ellison, of NCSC, said on Wednesday: “Individuals who play important roles in our democracy are an attractive target for cyber actors seeking to disrupt or otherwise undermine our open and free society.
“That’s why the NCSC has ramped up our support for people at higher risk of being targeted online to ensure they can better protect their accounts and devices from attacks.
“In this significant year of elections around the world, I urge individuals eligible for our services to sign up and to follow our guidance now to bolster their defences.”