The Norwegian government is mounting what commentators are calling an “historic” reaction against Russia. It was front-page news on Wednesday after Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide blamed Norway’s neighbour in the north for an attack on the Norwegian Parliament’s email systems, and then went public with it.
“This is a very serious incident, affecting our most important democratic institution,” Søreide stated in a press release late Tuesday. Her statement came after Søreide first had informed Members of Parliament about the results of an investigation into the hacking attack that was discovered last summer.
“The security and intelligence services are cooperating closely to deal with this matter at the national level,” Søreide continued, and then came her historic accusation:
“Based on the information the government has, it is our view that Russia is responsible for these activities,” Søreide stated. She also called in Russia’s ambassador in Oslo, and claims to have information tying Russia to the attacks that gave hackers access to the email accounts of several top Norwegian politicians.
Newspaper Aftenposten reports that email, account numbers, personal national ID numbers, bank information and other personal data tied to parliament employees and politicians were stolen in the massive attack. MPs were informed of the attack on August 24, and view it as highly discomforting.
Both Søreide and Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen oriented Parliament Tuesday on the results of investigations carried out through the Norwegian Joint Cyber Coordination Centre. Søreide didn’t publicly share any evidence pointing to Russian perpetrators, but she’s clearly confident enough to confront Russian Embassy officials and her counterparts in Russia.
Loud objections from Russia
They predictably and loudly denied having anything to do with the attack on Norway’s Parliament, with even a Russian intelligence expert telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it would have been “uninteresting and meaningless” to dig into the email of Norwegian MPs. He claimed Russia’s own intelligence-gathering agencies wouldn’t spend time on it, while the leader of Russia’s own foreign relations committee branded the Norwegian allegations as nonsense.
Russia’s embassy in Oslo, meanwhile, called Søreide’s allegations “serious” and “a provocation” that’s “destructive to the bilateral relation” between Russia and Norway. Russian officials themselves were demanding an explanation Tuesday evening.
The hacking attack on Norway’s Parliament, however, was the latest in a long line of hacking and data breaches at other national assemblies in Europe. Government officials in Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain, for example, have also recently gone public with accusations of their own against Russia, which, along with China, has long been viewed as posing the greatest security threats against Norway.
Søreide is calling the alleged Russian attacks “unacceptable” and let it be known that she and the government view them as so serious that they had to react as they have. Aftenposten noted that if Norwegian officials hadn’t reacted, it would encourage Russia to take even more liberties against its neighbour.
“It’s important for us to hold Russia responsible,” Søreide told reporters after her orientation to MPs. “It’s also important that there’s an unequivocal reaction from our side.” She used the Norwegian word attribusjon, diplomatic language clearly attributing the attacks to Russia because the government believes it has enough evidence to do so.
Norway’s foreign ministry is formally behind the accusations, but Aftenposten reported that Søreide had broad support within the government for reacting as she did. Opposition MPs who were targets of the attack are also supporting the reaction. “This is extremely serious,” MP Liv Signe Navarsete of the Center Party, who also has served as a government minister, told reporters after her email was among accounts that were compromised.
“This incident (the recent hacking attacks) demonstrates the importance of good security measures,” Søreide added. “The increasing use of digital solutions means that the threats against us have also shifted to the digital arena. The government will continue its efforts to strengthen national cyber security and expand international cooperation in this field.”
Intelligence budgets boosted
That strengthening is evident in the government’s recently proposed state budget for 2021. In it, Norway’s military intelligence unit known as E-tjenesten stands to receive a substantial budget increase of more than NOK 140 million, even after being behind a recent spying incident involving a former Norwegian border inspector that went very wrong. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported earlier this month that E-tjenesten‘s budget nonetheless has been tripled over the past 15 years, from the NOK 691 million it received in 2005 to NOK 2.3 billion now.
It’s never revealed how all that money is used, and it’s raised concerns about surveillance of Norwegian citizens as well as foreigners, but the intelligence agency’s responsibility for both offensive and defensive cyber operations has now become even more clear. Evidence it’s now said to have against Russian was being called “a feather in their cap” on Wednesday.
Relations between Norway and Russia have become increasingly strained in recent years. Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who now leads NATO, told Norway’s TV2 that NATO is concerned about all the alleged Russian data attacks.
“The hacking attack on Stortinget (the Norwegian Parliament) is serious and we trust Norwegian authorities’ evaluation that Russia is behind it,” Stoltenberg told TV2. “NATO is worried, because this is part of a pattern we have seen in other countries. Such attacks are unacceptable and undermine confidence.”