Cybersecurity and UK Democracy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:13 pm ar 26 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business) 8:13, 26 Mawrth 2024

We welcome this Statement, which we hope is a significant step towards a more strategic, cross-party approach to this issue. I take the opportunity to acknowledge our friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has earned the opprobrium of the Chinese Communist Party thanks to his tireless campaigning. He should accept this as a badge of honour, albeit one that comes with ominous concerns. Over the last 24 hours, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement and called Beijing’s actions “completely unacceptable”. He added that:

“Such action from China will not be tolerated”.

Given that this is what the Government believe, the response to date seems feeble. This feebleness was highlighted by many of the Minister’s colleagues in the Commons, and not just Sir Iain Duncan Smith. But perhaps the reason for this caution was voiced by an unnamed Cabinet Minister quoted in the press as saying that the Government do not want to start a trade war. However, in response, China has said that it “strongly condemns” the UK’s “egregious” move to sanction Chinese hackers, adding that it would

“take the necessary reaction, as a matter of course, to the U.K.’s moves”.

What is the Cabinet Office assessment of the risk to the UK economy? How are the UK Government preparing to resist any retaliation?

During yesterday’s Statement, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden noted that it is no surprise that China

“should seek to interfere in electoral processes” in successful democratic countries. The Deputy Prime Minister may not have been surprised, but the integrated review—even its refresh—does not anticipate this level of attack. What we have today is inadequate, so I suggest that the Government use this to instigate a process of significant and proactive cross-party consensus that we can take forward and have a cross-sectoral plan for our relationship with China.

The hack of the Electoral Commission is very worrying; can the Minister explain why it took so long for it to be disclosed? According to the NCSC, this data is highly likely to be used by Chinese intelligence services for a range of purposes, including large-scale espionage and transnational repression of perceived dissidents and critics in the UK. How will the UK Government protect those here in the UK-Chinese community who may be subject to long-distance repression?

Yesterday the Opposition’s spokesperson, and their spokesperson here today, rightly highlighted China’s voracious appetite for data and its potential uses as computing power improves. Even if data cannot usefully be manipulated and weaponised, it is used as a very useful training tool for artificial intelligence models, as we just heard. I echo the question asked yesterday: what are the Government doing to protect complex and valuable public datasets from being stolen in this way? Two, for example, are health data and criminal records, but is not just our existing datasets we should worry about; the Chinese have the capability to build their own. For example, years after the decision to remove it, Huawei remains integral in our telecoms infrastructure. The Hikvision ban extends only to so-called sensitive sites, despite the fact that we have pushed hard to ensure that it extends to all public buildings.

This is just the tip of the data-gathering iceberg that exists already in this country. For example, last week, the Council on Geostrategy published a new policy paper highlighting the risks from Chinese cellular modules—so-called IoT modules. This raises an issue around the role of devices that sit inside almost every internet-enabled device, creating another whole cyber danger area. Then there are electric cars, which are little more than data hoovers, sending information back to China.

China has data and technology strategies that directly link to its strategic and security aims. They are decades ahead of our defences. We have to work together, and quickly, to develop the necessary responses. Despite the very good work that has been done by our own agencies to protect us, so much more is needed.