Blackout threat to Britain from Russian cyber-attack

Spy chiefs have warned the bosses of Britain’s key power companies to boost their security amid fears of a Russian cyber-attack that could put the lights out.

The National Grid was put on alert last week by officials from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) — a branch of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ — and given advice on how to improve its defences to prevent power cuts.

Electricity, gas and water firms, the Sellafield nuclear power plant, Whitehall departments and NHS hospitals have all been warned to prepare for a state- sponsored assault ordered by the Kremlin after the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

NCSC officials, working with the National Crime Agency and MI5’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, have told key organisations that they could face attempts to steal the data of taxpayers and patients or “denial of service” attacks that could shut down their websites.

A Whitehall security source said: “They’re contacting all the critical national infrastructure operators. They’ve been in touch with National Grid with guidance.”
Paul Chichester, the NCSC director of operations, said: “It is absolutely right that we give advice to sectors on defending themselves from cyber-attacks.

“We are vigilant to cyber-threats wherever they come from and are ready to defend against them.”

The warnings come after Russia announced that it was expelling 23 British diplomats in retaliation for Theresa May’s decision to evict 23 Russian spies after the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

The British Council, which promotes British culture and the English language, will also be expelled from Russia and plans to reopen the British consulate in St Petersburg are to be shelved.

May will chair a meeting of the national security council on Tuesday to decide how to respond. Downing Street has drawn up plans to:

■ Pass emergency legislation to make it easier to seize the assets of people who live in Russia but launder their money though London

■ Strengthen the visa regime to make it harder for Vladimir Putin’s cronies to travel to London

■ Close a Russian trade outpost in Highgate, north London, which is viewed as a hotbed of espionage

■ Target the finances of Russian oligarchs living in the UK

■ Publish a further list of Russian officials to be expelled.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, will address a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels tomorrow and will meet the Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, to discuss joint action.

This morning, Johnson accused Russia of stockpiling the deadly nerve agent used in Salisbury for a decade. His comments came after Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, suggested that it could in fact have come from Porton Down, the UK’s specialist defence research laboratory.

Last night Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland, suggested that the Kremlin-backed television channel RT — formerly Russia Today — should be shut down.

“Russia Today exists for the sole purpose of promoting the agenda of Putin’s regime,” she said.

“Objectivity is poisoned when state agents pump propaganda into the households of this country.”

Britain will not name the 23 Russian spies it has ordered to leave. But intelligence chiefs are concerned that Moscow will publish the names, photographs and job titles of MI6 officers among those to be expelled, a move that would stop them serving abroad.

Offensive cyber-operations by Britain against Russia have been ruled out but Ciaran Martin, head of the NCSC, said in January that “it is a matter of when, not if” Britain is hit with a “category one” cyber-attack that causes loss of life or the “disruption of critical systems”.

The NHS has boosted its defences after a cyber-attack launched from North Korea last year.

In 2007 Russian hackers shut down the websites of Estonia’s parliament, banks and media outlets.

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Article courtesy of The Times