British spies are on a cyber-mission to disrupt the spread of anti-vaccine disinformation online by hostile states and terrorist groups, according to The Times.
The paper reported today that GCHQ has begun a digital offensive operation to prevent the circulation of propaganda that could put people off the idea of receiving inoculations against diseases.
The Times says it has been informed by sources that GCHQ is “using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material peddled by Islamic State” to detect and disrupt the activities of anti-vaxxers.
Ensuring the public is open to such medical procedures is a rising priority for the UK government as the prospect of an effective vaccine being developed for Covid-19 becomes increasingly likely.
A government source told The Times: “GCHQ has been told to take out anti-vaxxers online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda.”
GCHQ’s cyber-spies are said to be focusing on taking down state-linked content and making life difficult for those who posted it by encrypting their data and preventing them from communicating with other cyber-actors.
Regular social media users who post anti-vaccination sentiments will not be targeted by GCHQ, which is not legally allowed to take down disinformation spouted by private individuals.
“You wouldn’t get authorization to go after cranks. People have a right to say batshit stuff online,” the government source told The Times.
Another restriction placed on GCHQ’s cyber-operation is the whereabouts of servers used by propagandists. Currently, servers located in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States are beyond their reach because those countries are members of the intelligence-sharing agreement, the Five Eyes Alliance.
In October, fake news media outlets in Russia posted memes and social media posts that indicated a coronavirus vaccine currently being developed in Oxford by AstraZeneca could turn people into monkeys.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the propaganda as a serious attempt to disrupt the discovery of a safe vaccine.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Raab said that “any attempt to spread lies about Covid-19 and the vaccine in particular, when we’re trying to come together as an international community to resolve a global pandemic is utterly deplorable.”