Foreign hackers ‘may have interfered with Brexit vote’

A voter registration site that crashed in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum may have been brought down by foreign hackers, MPs have claimed.

The official site crashed on June 7 last year, just hours before the deadline for people to sign up to vote in the referendum.

The Government initially blamed a surge in demand following the Brexit television debates and had to rush through emergency regulations extending the deadline.

However, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) said the crash had indications of being a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS).

The website came down in the days before the Brexit vote (Rex)
The website came down in the days before the Brexit vote (Rex)

While the committee did not identify who may have been responsible, it noted that both Russia and China use an approach to cyber attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

It said while the incident had no material effect on the outcome of the referendum, it was crucial that lessons were learned for future votes which must extend beyond purely technical issues.

The warning comes amid repeated claims that Russia has sought to interfere in foreign elections, including last year’s US presidential election.

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The committee said: “PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS using botnets.

“The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based.

“For example, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

“The implications of this different understanding of cyber attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear.

“PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.”

The Government maintained that the site crashed because of high demand.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “We have been very clear about the cause of the website outage in June 2016. It was due to a spike in users just before the registration deadline.

“There is no evidence to suggest malign intervention. We conducted a full review into the outage and have applied the lessons learned. We will ensure these are applied for all future polls and online services.”

However, PACAC’s Tory chairman Bernard Jenkin added: “We have taken our own advice and have concluded from that advice that it cannot be ruled out.

“After all, it has happened in other countries.”

Mr Jenkin said that the committee had made a “precautionary” recommendation for the authorities to monitor cyber activity during elections and referendums and be prepared to respond to any attacks if they occur.

Top pic: PA