State sponsored cyber attack: Will we practice what we preach?

Image3Another week, another set of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. This time it has been reported that GCHQ is responsible for a cyber attack on Belgacom. Considering the Foreign Office has repeatedly condemned state sponsored cyber attack it appears that we aren’t practicing what we preach.

Speaking at the London Cyberspace Conference in 2011, the Foreign Secretary said: “State-sponsored attacks are not in the interests of any country long term, and those governments that perpetrate them need to bring them under control.”

It appears then that this message is only relevant to the countries that we seek, quite rightly, to condemn rather than to ourselves and our allies. The information leaked by Edward Snowden, and reported on by Der Spiegel, indicates that the goal of “Operation Socialist” was “to enable better exploitation of Belagcom” and to improve understanding of the provider’s infrastructure. It also appears that GCHQ used spying technology that had been developed by the NSA.

It is unclear as to the exact target of the cyber attack, but an indication is that major customers of Belgacom include the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, so the immediate question to be asked is have GCHQ attempted to spy on British members of the European Parliament?

At the same conference, the Foreign Secretary also said: Cyberspace must be secure and reliable so that it is trusted as a medium for doing business, and innovators are confident their discoveries will be appropriately protected”. It wouldn’t seem that a cyber attack on the telecommunications company responsible for the service of such high profile European institutions would be aligned with this statement.

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins highlights the bizarre silence in Britain to the leaks by Snowdon in comparison to the US and other major States, citing the remarkably light oversight of GCHQ in comparison to the NSA as being a major problem. Despite the Foreign Secretary previously stating that a key principle to internet governance should be : The need for governments to act proportionately in cyberspace and in accordance with international law”, the response to the Snowdon leaks have been particularly half hearted, with the main message being that all surveillance carried out was “authorised, necessary, proportionate and targeted”.

At a foreign policy level, the UK has sought to promote a system of values online around the work that defend and uphold our privacy and yet these latest revelations only reaffirm that our domestic policies are undermining this good work. We boldly challenge countries like Russia and China who seek to control and monitor the free flow of information yet we are seemingly doing exactly that ourselves. The Government must lead by example or we risk seeing our actions copied around the world at the detriment of millions of people who hope the internet may finally bring them democracy. It is examples like this that has meant that we are holding an event at Conservative Party Conference entitled “The Snoopers Charter and Freedom of Speech: Has Britain Surrendered Its International Moral Authority?”.