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China Linked to UK Cyber-attacks on Voter Data: A Threat to British Democracy?

Curia interviewed Jenna Saucedo-Herra, President and CEO at greater: SATX, an economic development organisation for San Antonio, Texas. This interview sheds light on the intersection of economic development, trade agreements, and cybersecurity innovation.

As details have emerged over this weekend regarding China’s highly suspected cyber-attack on the UK’s Electoral Commission, dating back to 2021, the government are coming under increasing pressure to respond directly to Beijing and the threats it clearly poses to British democratic systems.

This comes only a week after it was announced the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron sought to halt or temporarily freeze any further sanctions on China or Chinese individuals when he assumed office last November. The suspected Chinese cyber-attacks were known to the authorities in 2023, as details slowly begin to emerge.

This now puts enormous pressure on the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, and on Lord Cameron in particular, as critics sought to point to his ruinous so-called ‘Golden-Era’ Sino-British strategy and close links with China as a central argument making him unsuitable for Foreign Secretary during his appointment last year.

It is understood that the Deputy Prime Minster Oliver Dowden will be making a statement later on these matters, as the government is coming under renewed pressure now to issue new sanctions against further Chinese individuals, responsible for authorising and conducting the cyber-attacks against the Electoral Commission.

The timing for this won’t be lost on anybody, as the UK begins to gear into campaigning season for the highly anticipated general election. The Electoral Commission holds on record millions of British voter IDs, voting patterns, and personal details – all of which can be potentially accessed through highly sophisticated offensive cyber-attacks, the likes of which the Chinese are already well-versed in.  

Cyber-attacks impeding on British democracy:

The risks therefore posed to British democracy are immense, and incredibly sensitive. There are many recorded instances already of how Russian and Chinese cyber-attacks have the potential to influence voters, through targeted social media campaigns and state-sponsored propaganda. This was seen in the UK most readily during the EU referendum campaign, and in the US general election in 2016 and 2020.

The Chinese have the added bonus of course of TikTok, the social media app loved by millions of Britons, but which has overall Chinese ownership through its parent company ByteDance, a key player in the Chinese Communist Party’s military-industrial-surveillance system and with links to the Chinese military.

This comes at a time of further complications between London and Beijing, despite recent attempts at a diplomatic outreach between the two nations to focus on common goals at a time of increasing tension.

One instance of such complications is the ongoing case of Chinese battery company EVE, and its early stage talks to invest in a new gigafactory at Coventry airport, designed to help power the UK’s automotive industry as it attempts to transition to electric vehicles.

The worry is that such an investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure only increases the country’s reliance on Chinese technology and investment, precisely at a time when many argue that the UK ought to be de-risking from such projects and their inherited associated geopolitical risks.

The Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch has previously warned that the UK must not become “overly reliant” on Chinese battery technology. Blocking Chinese investment into a super battery factory to power British vehicles would be one place to start – building on the government’s decision to cancel Chinese investment into the Sizewell C nuclear plant in November 2022 on similar national security grounds. Meanwhile, and likely far more immediately, the government will face mounting pressure to act resolute regarding the highly suspected Chinese cyber-attacks and reverse the FCDOs decision to freezing sanctions on China – especially considering the seriousness of the situation now facing the UKs democratic.

Final thoughts:

Amidst growing concerns over suspected cyber-attacks from China targeting the UK’s Electoral Commission, the government faces a pivotal moment in safeguarding British democracy. The alleged breach not only exposes vulnerabilities in our digital infrastructure but also underscores the geopolitical risks associated with Chinese investments in critical sectors.

As tensions rise and diplomatic relations strain, policymakers are confronted with the urgent task of balancing economic interests with national security imperatives. The forthcoming response from Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden will be closely watched as a test of the government’s commitment to protecting the integrity of democratic processes.

This article was written by Curia’s Foreign Policy Director, Rob Clark. For more insight in the realm of foreign policy analysis, please sign up to our newsletter here.

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