Secret UK trade documents used by then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to attack the Government were stolen by Russian hackers from the email account of former international trade secretary Liam Fox, it was reported today.
The Department of International Trade documents on post-Brexit trade talks with the US were brandished by the hard Left MP at a press conference in November, days before he led his party to a catastrophic vote defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson.
The Reuters news agency today cited sources who said they were taken from the email of Dr Fox, who had been removed from his post by Boris Johnson the previous July.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a criminal investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and October 21 last year.
The account was said to have been the victim of a ‘spear phishing’ message, where users are tricked into handing over their log-in details and password.
They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.
Among the stolen information were six tranches of documents detailing British trade negotiations with the United States, which Reuters first reported last year were leaked and disseminated online by a Russian disinformation campaign.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab confirmed that report last month, saying that ‘Russian actors’ had sought to interfere in the election ‘through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents’.
Reuters was not able to determine which of Mr Fox’s email accounts was hacked and when it was first compromised. It is not clear if Mr Fox, who is still an MP but stood down as trade minister on July 24 last year in a cabinet reshuffle, was a minister at the time.
On November 27 last year Mr Corbyn staged a stunt claiming to reveal the sensitive documents about US-UK trade talks, as he fought of attacks over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
The documents date from 2018, well before Boris Johnson was PM, and only includes officials rather than ministers.
The unredacted versions were also shared on Reddit for months before the conference, and were even tweeted by a Labour MEP five days previously without attracting any attention.
Mr Fox’s replacement, Liz Truss, is currently in the US for talks with Donald Trump’s administration.
She is scheduled to meet US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Monday and Tuesday, his office said.
A British government spokeswoman said today: ‘There is an ongoing criminal investigation into how the documents were acquired, and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this point.’
She added that the government had ‘very robust systems in place to protect the IT systems of officials and staff.’
Representatives for Fox declined to comment on the details of Reuters findings.
The hack of Fox’s account – which has not been previously reported – and subsequent leak of the classified documents ahead of last year’s election is one of the most direct examples of suspected Russian attempts to meddle in British politics.
In the past, Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations of election meddling in Britain, France, the United States and other countries. Russia’s foreign ministry described the latest British accusations by Raab as ‘foggy and contradictory’.
A British parliamentary report released last month found that Moscow had tried to influence a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, and that Britain’s government had failed to adequately investigate possible Russian attempts to sway the 2016 vote on Brexit.
Fox’s email account was hacked using a so-called ‘spear phishing’ message, which tricks the target into handing over their password and login details, the sources said.
The sources said it was not clear if the hackers who stole the trade documents were the same people who later leaked them online.
After first being posted online by an anonymous internet user in the run-up to last year’s vote, the stolen documents were seized on by Britain’s opposition Labour Party during the election campaign.
It said they showed a government plot to sell the much-loved National Health Service to the United States, an accusation Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly denied.