By Nina dos Santos, CNN
British lawmakers have been warned to be on alert for cyber-attacks and possible harassment from Iranian operatives, according to correspondence sent to lawmakers in both the upper and lower chambers last month.
In letters sent on November 21, which were obtained by CNN, the speakers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords reminded members of parliament to increase the security of their mobile devices.
The speakers said the police and intelligence agencies had not discovered “any hostile Iranian activity specifically focused on Parliamentarians.” However, given threats authorities say have been made against UK-based members of the Iranian diaspora “perceived as enemies of the regime … this is a good opportunity to remind you all to stay vigilant,” the letters said.
“The Iranian agencies have strong offensive cyber capabilities,” the letters added.
The correspondence is part of a growing chorus of warnings about the potential actions of Iranian operatives in Britain as tensions rise between the two countries.
Earlier in the month, UK lawmakers received guidance on how to prevent digital snooping. That guidance recommended leaving phones outside of rooms during sensitive conversations, installing password managers, and using two factor authentication systems when accessing emails or backing up phones.
“On 1 November we heard a statement from the Security Minister, setting out the growing threat from hostile states to our national security, and the Government’s plan to lead a taskforce to drive forward work to defend the democratic integrity of our country,” Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, wrote to lawmakers on November 14.
“As recent events have highlighted, hostile states continue to target Parliamentarians to gain insight into, or exert influence over, our democratic processes for their economic, military or political advantage,” he said.
Two days after that, Ken McCallum, head of UK domestic intelligence service MI5, said that Iran had made at least 10 attempts to kidnap or even kill British nationals or other people on UK soil and was employing increasingly aggressive tactics to target anyone deemed to be an enemy of the Iranian regime.
In a speech at MI5’s headquarters, McCallum said Iran’s intelligence apparatus was a “sophisticated adversary” which sometimes used its own agents or intermediaries and was on occasion prepared to take what he called “reckless action.”
Two members of parliament told CNN they had begun to receive spam emails about Iran, seemingly from ad hoc groups that appeared to be protesting the regime in Tehran. The MPs who did not wish to be named said they began receiving the emails in the last month.
Mass protests in Iran have put the country’s religious regime on notice. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman who was in the custody of Tehran’s morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.
Amid a brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran, Britain has imposed financial and travel restrictions on two dozen Iranian officials. Iran has sanctioned several UK lawmakers, including the country’s security minister.
Iranian security forces have also allegedly threatened journalists working in Britain. In November, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned Tehran’s most senior diplomat over the claims and was quoted by Reuters at the time saying he had made clear that “we do not tolerate threats to life and intimidation.”
This week a top Iranian official said the nation’s hijab law was being reviewed, after months of women across the country removing theirs in defiance, according to the pro-reform outlet Entekhab.
Under pressure at home, Iran, Russia and China are increasingly trying to export the influence of their autocracies elsewhere.
Last weekend, CNN reported that China had set up more than a hundred police stations abroad to monitor, harass and sometimes repatriate its citizens in exile, according to a report by the human rights group Safeguard Defenders.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied it operates undeclared police stations abroad and says such offices are staffed by volunteers to help expatriates with paperwork.
Earlier this year, the UK Lord speaker, John McFall, wrote to lawmakers warning them of the activities of Christine Lee, a UK-based lawyer with ties to Hong Kong, who they said had been engaged in political interference activities for years on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. CNN’S repeated requests for comment to Lee’s law firm went unanswered.
In his alert on that subject, McFall also warned peers about the activities of Janusz Niedzwiecki, a Polish national, and Oleg Voloshyn, a Ukrainian, who he said had been lobbying on behalf of Russia in the run up to its invasion of Ukraine.
Niedzwiecki was arrested in Poland in 2021 and charged with espionage. Voloshyn, who is believed to be in Belarus, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
At the time, McFall said he was taking “the opportunity to remind colleagues of the range of activities undertaken by some foreign state actors against parliament and members which pose a security risk; whether through cyber-attack, or more traditional methods of espionage to gather information, exert influence, or disseminate disinformation.”
A spokesperson for the UK Parliament would not comment on specifics, but said it takes the cyber and physical security of lawmakers “extremely seriously.”
They said in a statement to CNN: “We have robust measures in place and work closely with partners across government, including the National Cyber Security Centre. We provide advice to users — including Members of both Houses — to make them aware of the risks and how to manage their digital safety, however we do not comment on specific details of our cyber or physical security policies or incidents.”
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