‘Blackout threat’ sparks fears of cyber attack

Putin wins: Yesterday he was re-elected with 74% of the vote (and no major opposition). © Getty

Is the Russia debate becoming hysterical? As tensions with the UK escalate, water, power and finance companies have been warned of cyber attacks from the newly re-elected President Putin…

The electricity grid grinds to a halt, causing the lights to flicker out across Britain. Water supplies are cut off and taps begin to run dry. Hospitals are locked out of their patients’ medical files. Billions of pounds are lost as the London Stock Exchange is taken offline.

These are extreme examples of what might happen if a major cyber attack is launched against Britain. And this weekend, UK infrastructure was put on “high alert”. The Observer and The Sunday Times reported that several major companies were working with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to protect themselves against an attack.

The potential attacker? Russia. It has been two weeks since Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a deadly nerve agent in Salisbury. Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russia of an “unlawful use of force” against Britain and expelled 23 Russian diplomats. The same number of British diplomats have been expelled from Moscow in response.

Tomorrow, May will decide what to do next. She is looking into pursuing wealthy oligarchs living in London, and seizing the assets of any suspected money laundering operations. However, as President Putin was re-elected yesterday, there are fears over how he might retaliate.

“In their current mood it’s hard to know what they will do,” a former GCHQ director told The Observer. “What’s different now is the willingness to be reckless...”

It is not just Britain. Last Thursday, the US accused Russia of hacking its electric and water systems. “They have the ability to shut the power off,” said one security expert. “All that’s missing is some political motivation.” America responded by announcing new sanctions.

The UK is not defenceless against similar attacks. In December, GCHQ said it was developing a “full spectrum” of cyber weapons. It could use these to hit back at Russia, but some fear this could lead to an all-out “electronic war”.

Is the Russia debate getting out of hand?

To Russia, with love?

Yes, say some. Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for saying that Britain should not “rush ahead of the evidence” or become “overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgement”. But he is right. Anger over the Salisbury attack and fears of cyber warfare could lead Britain down a dangerous path. Now is the time to think clearly and tread carefully.

Do not underestimate the danger that Russia poses, argue others. There is hard evidence that Putin’s government, or his supporters, are hacking foreign infrastructure, interfering with elections, and attempting to murder his enemies abroad. This cannot be allowed to continue, and the UK is right to take a strong stance against it.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about cyber attacks from Russia?
  2. Is the UK acting rashly in its response to Skripal’s poisoning?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a journalist, and you have secured five minutes alone with Vladimir Putin. Write down five questions you would ask him.
  2. Create a timeline detailing Vladimir Putin’s time in power in Russia, beginning when he became prime minister in August 1999.

Some People Say...

“If you want to control someone, all you have to do is to make them feel afraid.”

Paulo Coelho

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on March 4. Yesterday, the UK foreign secretary said Britain had evidence that Russia was behind their poisoning, which was carried out with a rare and deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union. On Thursday, the US, UK, France and Germany released a joint statement saying that there “is no plausible alternative explanation”.
What do we not know?
Exactly who was responsible for the incident, how it happened, or why. Although many think that it was probably ordered by the Russian government, as in the case of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, there is no hard evidence for this yet — at least not any that has been made available to the public.

Word Watch

National Cyber Security Centre
An agency founded in 2016 and opened last year. It is part of GCHQ, and advises on cybersecurity of all forms. It says it received 1,100 reports of “cyber incidents” in Britain last year, 590 of which were “significant”.
Sergei Skripal
A former Russian spy who became a double agent working for Britain. He is now a UK citizen. He and his daughter are both critically ill, but stable, in hospital.
Re-elected
The victory surprised no one, as Putin’s main opposition, Alexei Navalny, was not allowed to run. One exit poll put turnout at around 63.7%.
GCHQ
The Government Communications Headquarters. One of Britain’s intelligence and security organisations.
Sanctions
Economic punishments against another country. These were also issued in response for Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 general election.
Jeremy Corbyn
In parliament, the Labour leader also criticised the Conservative Party for taking donations from Russians, to cries of “shame!” He condemned the attack, and has later said that the “evidence points to Russia”.