Classified documents about US-UK trade discussions, which were leaked before last year’s general election, were stolen by Russian hackers from an email account belonging to Liam Fox, the UK’s former trade secretary.
The dossier, which was disseminated via the social media site Reddit, was used by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour party leader at the time, during the election campaign as evidence that the government planned to put the NHS “up for sale”.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, last month said “Russian actors” had “almost certainly” tried to interfere in the election by helping to distribute the sensitive documents online but he would not say how they had been obtained.
The revelation that the papers were stolen from Mr Fox’s email account was first reported by Reuters on Monday, and has been confirmed by two people with knowledge of the leak. Mr Fox, who is still an MP, is currently the UK’s nominee to become director of the World Trade Organization.
The National Crime Agency is conducting a criminal investigation into the theft of the documents, but officials would not discuss allegations that the dossier had been stolen from Mr Fox’s email account.
“We can confirm that the NCA is leading the investigation but we cannot comment further as this is a live investigation,” a spokeswoman said.
According to Reuters, Russian hackers accessed the former trade secretary’s account “multiple times” between July 12 and October 21 last year. Mr Fox stood down from his post on July 24 2019, after a cabinet reshuffle.
His account was hacked using the technique of “spear phishing”, in which targets are tricked into handing over their password and login details, Reuters reported. However, it is still unclear whether the hack was conducted on the former minister’s government account or private email.
The National Cyber Security Centre, the branch of GCHQ focusing on UK cyber defences, said it “worked closely” with MPs and political parties on online security but declined to comment on the allegations regarding Mr Fox’s emails because of the continuing investigation.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the government had “very robust systems in place to protect the IT systems of officials and staff”.
Mr Fox did not respond for comment and his spokesperson referred to the Cabinet Office statement. Spokespeople for Mr Raab and Ben Wallace, defence secretary, also declined to comment.
When Mr Raab last month accused Russian hackers of having sought to interfere in the UK election, he was clear that any assault on the democratic process was “completely unacceptable”. He did not suggest that Moscow had stolen the documents but said there was evidence that “Russian actors” had played a role in “promot[ing] the illicitly acquired material online” via Reddit.
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told the FT at the time that accusations of interference in the 2019 election were “unfounded".
Reddit revealed in December that the distribution of the leaked documents online bore the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign known as “Secondary Infektion”, which uses fake accounts across dozens of online platforms to sow discord in the west.
Get alerts on Cyber warfare when a new story is published