Former head of GCHQ: Russia poses cyber threat to Britain's democratic system

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Russia is a cyber threat to Britain’s democratic system, the former head of GCHQ warned today.

Robert Hannigan, who stepped down as director of the Cheltenham-based spy listening centre earlier this year, stressed the need to put down some “red lines” and “push back” against alleged Russian cyber attacks.

Asked on BBC radio, if the Russian authorities were a threat to the UK’s democratic process, Mr Hannigan said: “Yes.

“There is a disproportionate amount of mayhem in cyber space coming from Russia, from State activity, and (French) president Macron and Angela Merkel have called this out recently, attacks on democratic institutions, right through to major organised cyber criminal groups many of which are based in or run from Russia.”

President Donald Trump’s administration has been dogged by claims that Russia sought to influence the US election in his favour, with the alleged leaking of hacked Democratic Party emails, a claim that the Kremlin denies. 

Pressed on what Britain should be doing in response to reported Russia State cyber intrusions, Mr Hannigan said: “Starting to talk about is good, calling it out.”

Britain must improves it defences, with the National Cyber Security Centre leading the way on this, but the private sector needed to do more, he said.

“But ultimately people will have to push back against Russian State activity and show that it is unacceptable,” he added.

“It does not have to be by cyber retaliation, but it may be that that is necessary sometime in the future, certainly the Americans have talked about that.

“But it may be sanctions and other measures just to put down some red lines and say that this behaviour is unacceptable.”

The Russian State could do more to stop cyber attacks by criminal groups, he added, and “could certainly rein in its own State activity”.

Mr Hannigan also urged social media companies to do more to take down extremist content on their sites.

But he believes that getting them to do this voluntarily is better than legislation which is a “blunt last resort”.

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