Ex-GCHQ chief says Russia causing 'cyberspace mayhem', urges push back against Russian state activity

A general view of the 24 hour Operations Room inside Britain's intelligence agency GCHQBen Birchall - WPA Pool / Getty Images

Russia is causing a "disproportionate amount of mayhem" in cyberspace that threatens democratic processes in the West, former director of Britain's intelligence agency GCHQ Robert Hannigan said on Monday (10 July). In his first interview since stepping down as head of the spy agency in March, Hannigan said some form of "cyber retaliation" may be necessary one day to deter such Russian activity.

When asked if Russia is a threat to the democratic process, Hannigan said on BBC Radio Four's Today programme: "Yes, there is a disproportionate amount of mayhem in cyberspace coming from Russia, from state activity."

He noted that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have already publicly challenged Russia over its activities and recent "attacks on major democratic institutions right through major organised cyber-criminal groups, many of which are based in Russia."

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During Macron's first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, Macron slammed state-funded Russian news outlets as "agents of influence" and propaganda that attempted to derail his campaign.

Last week, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency BfV said it assumed Russia will try to meddle in its upcoming general election in September.

In January, US intelligence agencies assessed with "high confidence" that Putin ordered a multifaceted "influence campaign" to undermine American democracy, denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump win the election.

The Kremlin has continued to vehemently deny allegations of interference and any involvement in the hacking attacks targeting elections, political parties and agencies in other nations.

"Starting to talk about it is good - calling it out. Improving our defences is obviously really important," Hannigan said. "But ultimately people will have to push back against Russian state activity and show that it's unacceptable.

"It doesn't have to be by cyber retaliation, but it may be that is necessary at some time in the future. It may be sanctions and other measures, just to put down some red lines and say that this behavior is unacceptable."

Dealing with end-to-end encryption

The former spy chief also called new legislation a "blunt tool" in the battle to take on terrorists' use of encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram.

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In March, Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for the police and intelligence agencies to be given access to WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services to prevent future terror attacks.

However, Hanningan warned that forcing social media companies to give intelligence agencies access to encryption-protected services by building "backdoors" would not only be "technically difficult" but a dangerous "threat to everybody".

"It's not a good idea to weaken security for everybody in order to tackle a minority," he said. "The challenge for governments is how do you stop the abuse of that encryption by a tiny minority of people who want to do bad things, like terrorists and criminals."

Instead he said the best approach for the government would be to "work with companies in a co-operative way to find ways around it".

"I can't see, particularly as many of these companies are US-based, that legislation is the answer on this. I don't think there is a magic solution where you can just legislate it away" he said. "Legislation is a blunt last resort because frankly extremism is very difficult to define in law and you could spend all your time in court arguing about whether a particular video crosses the line or not."

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