The GCHQ spy agency said on Tuesday in a rare declaration about its offensive cyber activities that British government hackers had initiated operations against extremists, state-backed disinformation campaigns, and attempts to meddle in elections.
The eavesdropping agency said in a statement that the attacks were carried out over the previous three years by the covert National Cyber Force (NCF), a hacking unit made up of spies and defence personnel from the British armed forces and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which has been in operation since 2020.
“Nations must be able to contest and compete with adversaries in cyberspace in an increasingly unstable and interconnected world,” GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said.
A 28-page report that aimed “to illustrate aspects of how the UK is being a responsible cyber power” was published alongside the announcement. It made no mention of the particulars of those actions.
It has long been known, but rarely acknowledged, that Britain is a major hacking power vying with the US as well as nations like Iran, China, and Russia.
In 2018, GCHQ made a number of their assaults against the Islamic State public. Since the NCF’s founding, Britain has provided very little information regarding its operations.
The statement made no more mention of how the NCF has employed its offensive cyber capabilities to “disrupt terrorist groups” or to defend overseas military deployments.
According to the statement, British government hackers have also worked to “reduce the threat of external interference in democratic elections” and have resisted state disinformation tactics.
Which disinformation-spreading states British hackers had attempted to stop was not specified in the document that accompanied the assertion. However, it was highlighted that “countries like Russia and Iran routinely conduct various types of cyber operations in order to disseminate misinformation.”
“Because the NCF’s activity is secret, we cannot discuss specifics of individual operations. In some cases, the goal is for enemies to be unaware that a cyber operation is to blame for the effects they are experiencing, according to GCHQ.
“This ambiguity can enhance the cognitive effect,” the author writes.
James Babbage, a 30-year veteran of GCHQ intelligence, was identified in the statement.