Former UK spy chief raises issue of foreign states publishing fake Covid news

Fears grow that vaccination programmes are being undermined by Russia, China and Iran

M93M4C GCHQ  An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: Ministry of Defence
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Fake news stories about Covid-19 are being published by foreign states, the former head of Britain’s surveillance headquarters said on Wednesday.

Robert Hannigan raised the issue amid growing concerns that the West’s vaccination programmes are being undermined by countries such as Russia, China or Iran creating deliberately inaccurate news.

While take-up of the vaccine has been high in Britain, a considerable number of people are refusing inoculation following incorrect reporting which could undermine the ability to achieve herd immunity.

There is also a suggestion that both China and Russia are attempting to undermine the West’s vaccines in order to promote their own inoculation drugs.

During a webinar discussion on cyber security with an American senator, Mr Hannigan, former director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), raised the concern.

In a question to Senator Maggie Hassan about Russian cyber-attacks on America, he said: “Of course there's a lot of fake news around Covid-19, some of which maybe state-inspired, some not”.

The senator for New Hampshire responded that social media companies had become “more aware of potential misinformation impacts”.

The senator, who serves on the Homeland Security committee, was then asked by Mr Hannigan: “On the misinformation, do you feel that tech companies are doing all they need to? There's a lot of talk here about whether tech companies are doing enough to take down anti-vac propaganda and to act quickly enough.”

Ms Hassan said that companies such as Facebook were getting better, “but I think there is considerable work to do”.

With cyber security a priority issue, both in democratic elections and relating to the pandemic, Britain and America are looking to step up cooperation, the Royal United Service Institute think tank heard in London.

Ms Hassan warned that cyber-attacks “cannot continue with impunity” from states such as China and Russia.

“It is critical that we bolster collaboration with our allies like the UK. We must develop a cyber doctrine to govern the rules of engagement, both offensively and defensively. Too often, our adversaries have engaged in cyber-attacks, espionage and influence campaigns on America and our allies with impunity and that cannot continue.”

Governments needed to work with the private sector to come up with innovations to counter the threats. “It will take an international coalition to constrain the threats from our adversaries, to our cybersecurity and supply chain,” she said.

The senator added that President Joe Biden had ordered a thorough review into the ‘SolarWinds’ attack in which Russian spies allegedly used software to penetrate the digital files of major US government departments and for nine months last year accessed top-level communications.

“I think it's really an important indication of where the administration may be headed in that President Biden raised the SolarWinds attack with President (Vladimir) Putin in his first telephone call with him,” she said. “That is not always something that a new president does but it's a good signal to be sure and it's a really marked contrast with what we saw from the last administration.”