Chinese agents are believed to be behind a series of cyber attacks on senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, including email personations and hacking attempts.
Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and co-founder of the Sino-sceptic China Research Group, last night said he had been subjected to cyberattacks intended to smear his reputation.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of intelligence body GCHQ, has opened a review of attacks on Tugendhat’s communications and attempts to impersonate him online, the Times first reported.
Google’s security team have also probed the origins of “spoof” email accounts mimicking the Tory MP and found that the users were based in China.
Futher evidence was found of hackers from China, Iran and Ethiopia trying to hack into his email account, but the Tory MP said it is impossible to know whether any of the attempts had been successful.
“It strikes me as extremely unlikely that it was not state-led if it was from China,” said Tugendhat. “It doesn’t have to have been literally [sent] by their version of GCHQ, but in some way state-supported.”
The MP first became suspicious of attempts to slander his name following revelations about a press release issued in his name in China last year. A journalist from the South China Morning Post contacted Tugendhat about the press release, which the MP revealed was phony.
Family and friends then contacted him about unlikely emails sent in his name from accounts with similar-sounding names to his real address. The impersonation emails made several untrue claims about his personal life.
Tugendhat told the Times: “I presume it is designed to cause a nuisance and cause confusion… It’s designed to warn you off and let you know ‘we’re here’.”
Tugendhat has remained a staunch opponent of state spying by Beijing over recent months, firming his position as one of the government’s vocal China hawks.
The MP was instrumental in pressurising Prime Minister Boris Johnson to scrap a deal with Huawei to build part of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, calling the Chinese vendor “the fox in the hen house”.
He has since urged the PM to ban social media platform Tiktok, warning that the Chinese firm “raises serious questions” about data protection in the UK.
Tory MP and fellow China Research Group member Anthony Browne told City A.M. the hacks on Tugendhat were “completely unacceptable”, adding that they proved the MP’s suspicions about China were correct.
“It is completely unacceptable for foreign governments to hack the accounts of UK citizens, especially of elected representatives, just because they level criticism at those governments,” said Browne.
“By doing that, those governments are showing their true colours and their disregard for human rights and freedom of speech.”
It is not known at this stage whether other ministers have been targeted by similar cyber attacks.
Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, who is also a member of the China Research Group, told City A.M. he had been the subject of “a bunch of phishing attacks” which he has reported to the relevant parliamentary officials.
Cyber security analyst Graham Cluley said the revelations were “not at all surprising”.
Cluley told City A.M: “Public figures are often targeted by state-sponsored hackers — not just for the purposes of spying and stealing information, but also for spreading disinformation.
“The Chinese and other countries are well known to be engaging in such techniques — which are not only relatively inexpensive but also have the benefit of being easy to deny.”
He added that MPs have “shown themselves to be worryingly lax regarding computer security issues” in the past, and urged the NCSC to use its full powers to reduce the risk of successful email spoofing campaigns.