UK wages cyber war against anti-vaccine propaganda spread by hostile states

Spy agency uses counter-terrorism tools to tackle fake news of pandemic

FILE PHOTO: Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Novavax logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo  GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD
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Britain’s spy agency has launched an offensive cyber operation to tackle anti-vaccine propaganda being spread online by hostile states.

GCHQ, which gathers communication from around the world to identify and disrupt threats to Britain, is using methods originally developed to tackle ISIS radicalisation material.

The threat of fake news surrounding new vaccines has led the security services to use the technology to counter disinformation activities linked to Russia, according to the Times.

The British government considers tackling false information about immunisation as a high priority, as the prospect of a reliable vaccine against the Covid-19 draws closer.

A vaccine is seen as the world’s best chance for tackling the pandemic that has led to more than 1.2 million deaths.

GCHQ is Britain’s main surveillance agency and it has a close relationship with the US National Security Agency, as well as with the security arms of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, in an intelligence alliance known as the “Five Eyes”.

"GCHQ has been told to take out anti-vaxers online and on social media," the Times said, citing a government source.

It cites Russia as being behind "a high proportion" of disinformation about the coronavirus.

The report said the focus of the operation is taking down hostile state-linked content and disrupting the communications of those responsible.

Last month, a fake news campaign targeted the UK's Oxford University vaccine, claiming it was capable of turning people into monkeys.

General Sir Nick Carter, UK chief of defence staff, has previously confirmed the security services are “helping to quash rumours" surrounding the pandemic.

They have been targeting fake news surrounding the outbreak and rogue remedies.

In the summer, Britain accused Russia of trying to hack western coronavirus vaccine research.

The National Cyber Security Centre identified attempts to access research laboratory data. Russia denies involvement.

Last month, US authorities charged six Russian military officers in connection with some of the world’s largest cyber attacks in the past decade.

The US Department of Justice revealed the charges against six officers from Russia’s main intelligence directorate GRU, saying they were members of a sophisticated, state-sponsored, secret hacking group called Sandworm.

They included computer fraud and conspiracy in launching attacks that entailed taking down Ukraine's power grid in 2015, an attempt to disrupt the French elections in 2016, and a cyber attack on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018.