The UK security minister has warned that the UK’s democracy is “under attack” after MPs were warned their mobile phones could be used to harvest sensitive information.
Tom Tugendhat gave the stark assessment of the situation after Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle issued MPs with advice from the government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to minimise their security risks.
“If hackers have switched on the microphone on one phone, everyone in the room might be overheard,” Hoyle wrote to MPs.
The NCSC advice includes suggestions that MPs should set up multi-factor verification in their phones, as well as update software and delete old messages. The organisation also advised senior politicians not to take their phones into sensitive meetings, as only one person’s phone camera or microphone needed to be compromised for everyone in a room to be put at risk.
The assessment follows reports of Liz Truss’s personal phone being hacked during the Tory leadership election campaign by agents suspected of working for the Kremlin.
According to the Mail on Sunday, the hack allowed foreign agents to gain access to sensitive information, including discussions about the war in Ukraine and private conversations with Kwasi Kwarteng, who would later become her chancellor.
In Hoyle’s letter, first reported by the HuffPost UK, he stated that “recent events” had shown hostile states were trying to “gain insight into, or exert influence over, our democratic processes for their economic, military or political advantage”.
“Our phones contain so much information: our messages, emails, contacts, photos and social media posts – including private, sensitive, personal, historic and sometimes even deleted data,” he added.
“They go almost everywhere with us, and have cameras and sensitive microphones built in, making them a potential goldmine for hostile states (as well as criminals and fraudsters) who wish to obtain sensitive information about Parliament and parliamentarians.”
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defence Select Committee, has warned previously that if Truss’s phone was hacked, “other senior government, diplomatic and military figures will be too”.
In light of this growing threat, Tugendhat is leading a Westminster taskforce to address threats to the UK’s democratic institutions.
He said “our democracy is under attack” and that the Speaker “is right to warn all MPs”
“That’s why I’m leading a new taskforce to bring together different groups that can protect our core sovereignty – the right to choose who leads us,” he added.
Earlier this month, two new reports found that cyber attacks from criminals and state-sponsored groups have significantly increased in the past financial year, turning the cyberspace into “the domain of warfare”.
In addition to the Russian threat, the UK government has recently warned against China’s influence over new technologies.
In a RUSI Security Lecture, the head of the GCHQ, Sir Jeremy Fleming, recently said that while countries such as the UK seek to use new technology to enable prosperity, the Chinese government sees them as a “tool to gain advantage through control of their markets, of those in their sphere of influence and of their own citizens”.
Earlier today, the UK government also blocked the sale of British chip manufacturer Newport Water Fab to a Chinese-owned company on national security grounds.
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