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Russia report reveals Kremlin’s “symbiotic relationship” with cyber criminals

The Russian government has become a “highly capable cyber actor” by striking secretive partnerships with cyber-criminal gangs, according to a report on the nation’s interference in British life.

Produced by parliament’s intelligence and security committee, the long-awaited report – which calls into question the government’s response to Kremlin meddling – reveals the close links Russian intelligence agencies have forged with serious organised crime groups.

In evidence provided to the committee, signals intelligence agency GCHQ described the relationship as “symbiotic” and warned it had “seen evidence of [serious organised crime] being connected at high levels of Russian state and Russian intelligence”.

“Russia has sought to employ organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills,” the report states. “[MI6] has observed that ‘this comes to the very muddy nexus between business and corruption and state power in Russia’.”

The report, which was delayed by Boris Johnson ahead of last year’s general election, also criticises the government and intelligence agencies’ failure to investigate alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.

In response to the report, the government said there was no evidence of successful interference in the referendum and that it will not launch an investigation. But the committee has said the government found no evidence because it “actively avoided” looking for it.

“No one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the [Brexit] referendum, because they did not want to know,” said the SNP’s Stewart Hosie.

A “hot potato”

One of the primary concerns raised by the report was the intelligence agencies’ failure to take ownership of the issue of Russian influence operations. “They do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference,” the report states.

“Indeed during the course of our Inquiry [they] appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.” Such fears may have been compounded by the backlash to the FBI’s own investigations into the role of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

But who is responsible? The intelligence chiefs told the committee the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport “holds primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns, and that the Electoral Commission has responsibility for the overall security of democratic processes”.

In turn, however, DCMS told the committee that its role was confined to policymaking surrounding disinformation, rather than handling operations to tackle hostile state campaigns.

“It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what,” the committee states. “Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.”

The committee is of the opinion that MI5 should take responsibility for the operational role, while policy around the issue should be drawn up by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.

Naming and shaming social media companies

The committee warns that social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, “hold the key and yet are failing to play their part”.

“The government must now seek to establish a protocol with the social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material,” the committee states. “Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act.”

It describes the issue as urgent and calls on the government to take action “as soon as possible”, while also backing the DCMS select committee’s calls for a regulatory framework for online political advertising. “We would add to that a requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5 where it is suspected that a hostile foreign state may be covertly running a campaign.”