Information obtained via a Freedom of Information request has revealed that Members of Parliament (MPs) have been targeted by over 22.3 million malicious email attacks over the past eight months, demonstrating the extent to which cyber criminals are targeting our parliamentarians online.
According to the Parliament Street think tank which obtained the data, MPs were targeted by over 2.7 million malicious email attacks in the first eight months of 2020 compared to just 1,747,759 monthly average attacks in 2019. This figure demonstrates that email attacks targeting parliamentarians surged by 60 percent within a year.
The think tank believes that cyber criminals have been taking advantage of the interest in and concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the frequency of email-based cyber attacks. However, their attempts eventually failed as all 22,321,459 malicious email attacks, suspected of being phishing, spam and malware attacks, were blocked by the Parliament's cyber defences.
The success achieved in blocking all kinds of email-based threats could be owed to the government's intent to enable Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) in all gov.uk domains. DMARC helps authenticate an organisation’s communications as genuine by blocking malicious or fraudulent emails that spoof email addresses operated by government departments.
In order to address the threat of cyber criminals targeting MPs with email-based malware and phishing attacks, the National Cyber Security Centre has also put in place its Active Cyber Defence Programme that includes Web Check, DMARC, Public Sector DNS, and a takedown service.
The Active Cyber Defence programme was introduced shortly after the NCSC flagged several attempts made by suspected hackers to obtain the personal details of British MPs using phishing emails, some of which requested MPs to disclose IDs and passwords of their personal accounts or to log in to fake websites.
"Attackers might send legitimate-looking password reset emails, urgent-sounding messages about financial problems, account change notifications requests, or links to documents that require you to log in with passwords," NCSC said.
"The emails are very convincing and could arrive at an individual’s personal or work email account, perhaps even appearing to come from someone known to the recipient," it added. It also warned that phishing attacks are likely to continue and that MPs should desist from sharing their passwords with unknown recipients.
The National Cyber Security Centre has also asked MPs and their staff to enable multi-factor authentication in their devices, view and validate device logins, terminate current sessions, forward suspicious e-mails and educate followers about phishing attempts.
Commenting on the number of malicious emails sent to MPs by cyber criminals, Tim Sadler, CEO of Tessian, said Parliament Street's findings highlight the sheer scale of the threat that all businesses are facing. With millions of malicious emails being sent, the odds that one might work are high - especially if they are carefully crafted to evade detection.
"Hacking humans on email is still the easiest way for cybercriminals to hack into organisations and institutions. Governments, therefore, need to protect their people from falling for phishing attacks, putting solutions in place to automatically detect threats and educating employees on threats like social engineering attacks.
"Failure to do so and the fallout could be disastrous, as cybercriminals get their hands on sensitive data and gain illegal access to officials' email accounts. Consider the damage that could be caused should a hacker successfully take over an MP's email account. The threat of phishing isn't going away any time soon, but organisations can find ways to proactively prevent their people from falling for the scams," he added.