April 13, 2017
Did Russia influence the Brexit vote?
One of the issues to watch out for in the coming elections is the influence of Russia and other foreign powers. There is clear evidence that Russia in particular has stepped up its cyberwarfare. Russian bots were behind an attack on the Bundestag in 2015, which resulted in the leaking to WikiLeaks of some classified documents from the secret services committee.
A House of Commons committee is now making a similar claim of Russian involvement in respect of a cyberattack on a voter registration website in the UK last year, as reported by the Guardian among others. The attack led to the extension of the voter registration deadline for the Brexit referencum beyond the original cut-off date of June 7. What seemed to have happened, according to the committee, is a so-called "distributed-denial-of-service attack", also known by its initials DDOS. DDOS uses botnets, networks of computers infected with malware, to overwhelm a target site. The committee has no direct proof of Russian involvement, but it is confident in its analysis that this was a DDOS attack, the scale of which only government agents have the resources to organise. This passage in the report struck us as particularly interesting:
“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.”
Nobody claims that this issue in any way affected the outcome of the referendum. But it was mostly young people who either registered late or not at all, and the young were overwhelmingly in favour of Remain. The issue is not so much whether Russia got the result it wanted, but the simple fact that Russia may be consistently using DDOS attacks to undermine western democracy. Attacks may be getting more sophisticated and powerful over time.