Heady mix of sex and power with a whiff of espionage - Alex Cole-Hamilton

The honey trap sexting scandal has gripped UK politics for several days now. As controversies go, the one now engulfing senior Tory MPs has it all, the heady mix of, sex, power, embarrassment and possibly even a whiff of espionage.
MPs have discovered attempts to hack their parliamentary emailsMPs have discovered attempts to hack their parliamentary emails
MPs have discovered attempts to hack their parliamentary emails

It is doubtlessly manna from heaven for tabloid editors and yet another headache for a Conservative party high command that is clearly in its death throes.

The Tory MP at the centre of this, William Wragg, fell victim to a scam known as “Catfishing”. Using fake profiles, scammers throw out some bait and see who they can reel in. It’s more widespread than you might think.

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During lockdown I was contacted by a friend who uses the dating website Tinder, to advise me that my photo was being used by someone calling themself “Mueller”. Aside from the devastating revelation that the profile was claiming to be seven years older than I am, I got it taken down with no apparent harm done.

Then I became a target myself. Earlier this year I was messaged by an unknown number. The introductory message called me by the wrong name and asked me out for dinner. I explained they were mistaken, but they still tried to draw me into conversation and sent me an impossibly beautiful profile picture. I shut them down and blocked their number.

I’ve no idea what their motivation was, but a sinister pattern is emerging. It comes after a raft of MPs have discovered attempts to hack their parliamentary emails and a cyber attack on the Electoral Commission. That pattern is the reason that I’ve been working with Stewart McDonald MP to try to get both of our parliaments to take this threat more seriously.

Now I’m not saying that the sexting scandal is linked to a hostile state actor, but it could be. The word Kompromat has passed into the English language but is Russian in origin. It is used to describe compromising material that is deployed as leverage against a high-level target to induce them to co-operate.

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What happened to William Wragg has all the markings of Kompromat. When he confessed his actions, he explained that he was compelled to pass mobile numbers of MP colleagues to the person he’d met on Grindr because of the “material they had on him”. All this comes hot on the heels of the UK Government blaming “Chinese state-affiliated actors” for those cyber-attacks against parliamentarians and the Electoral Commission.

We may well come to look back on this time with a realisation that we were already living in the early days of a new Cold War. The surveillance threat and the cyber-attacks from both Russia and China are increasing in both frequency and sophistication and destabilising our politics is one of their primary objectives. We can have all the firewalls and cyber-security we like, but the Wragg affair shows us that the human element will always be the weakest link in the chain. It is vital then that we move forward in this new reality with a sober understanding of that risk and prepare accordingly.

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats