Belfast Telegraph

Hackers may target general election, warns cyber expert

By Leona O'Neill

A cyber attack aimed at influencing the outcome of next month's general election is highly likely, a leading Northern Ireland-based internet security expert has warned.

Last week MPs and their staff were warned by the National Cyber Security Centre about hackers' attempts to obtain personal information from some members.

Concerns about cyber attacks have been heightened after a ransomware bug shut down thousands of NHS computers and froze IT systems across the world.

Online security expert Robert O'Brien, CEO of Londonderry-based global security software firm MetaCompliance, said the intelligence services are not taking any chances in the wake of the massive cyber attack which struck at the heart of the NHS earlier this month.

"Social engineering has already had a profound effect on elections internationally, leaving little doubt that hackers will target Britain in the coming days and weeks," he said.

"We already know hackers have tried to obtain personal information from MPs and that the National Cyber Security Centre has issued warnings advising MPs and their staff to be cautious about phishing e-mails asking for personal information such as account IDs or passwords.

"This is one way in for hackers - it's a way to gain access to information that can then be used to shape public opinion.

"The capability to access information that in turn becomes the basis for disinformation and attempts to influence the electorate's decision-making is an obvious lure.

"It's this kind of access that can allow for the spread of speculation, rumour and fake news.

"It allows the hackers to socially engineer the electorate. That is their aim and we've seen it in the course of recent elections in the US and France."

Mr O'Brien said there was a real risk to election results being compromised.

"A massive and co-ordinated attack - similar to that during the French elections - should be seen as highly likely, not just in the here and now, but in subsequent elections across the globe," he said.

In September Germany will also go to the polls.

"Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the BfV, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has also voiced serious concerns," he said.

"We already know large amounts of data have been seized by hackers during an attack on the Bundestag back in 2015.

"Both here in the UK and in Germany, there is real concern that factual information stolen during cyber attacks could be used to discredit politicians or influence the elections.

"It's only right that MPs and their staff are being advised to take steps such as enabling several authentication methods, validating device logins, terminating sessions, forwarding suspicious e-mails to the authorities and educating followers about phishing attempts."

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