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Did hackers fix the Brexit vote with DDoS?

The concerns around nation-state hackers echoes recent concerns regarding the US and French presidential elections.

By Ellie Burns

A new report has raised concerns about the possible interference by nation-state hackers in the run-up to the Brexit vote.

The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) said that MPs were concerned about foreign interference in last year’s Brexit vote. Although the report does not specifically identify the hackers or malicious actors responsible, it was noted that Russia and China were known to launch cyber attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology.

Many will note that the report echoes the recent claims and concerns surrounding Russia and its influence in the US and French presidential elections.

The report was launched to investigate the outage of the voter registration government website, with the outage hitting on one of the last days in the run-up to the vote, June 7. The government was forced to extend the deadline to register to vote in the EU referendum, allowing two further days for people to register.

READ MORE: Has Register to Vote website crash lost the EU Referendum the youth vote?

The outage left tens of thousands of potential voters unable to complete registration, sparking a major voter registration row amongst the UK government and the Electoral Commission. Debate was further fuelled by arguments that the outage may disenfranchise voters and swing important votes. John Rakowski, Director of Technology Strategy at AppDynamics, said at the time:

“”Digital technology has revolutionised the way we interact with organisations – from shopping to banking, and now voting. The impact of young voters on the outcome of the EU referendum is unquestionable and technology plays a vital role. It’s unacceptable that thousands of Brits were left unable to vote due to an IT glitch that should have been anticipated and planned for months ago.”

Although an IT glitch was blamed at the time of the outage, the new report by MP’s points to a possible DDoS attack, but downplays its role in the referendum outcome.

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“The crash had indications of being a DDOS ‘attack’. We understand that this is very common and easy to do with botnets… The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate,” the committee’s report said.Did hackers fix the Brexit vote with DDoS?

While the committee did not point the Brexit finger of blame at the website outage, it did note that lessons must be learned. While pointing to other nation states, the MP’s report said that it was crucial that the lessons learnt from this incident must extend past the purely technical.

“The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer network-based,” the report said.

“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 report concluded.

READ MORE: ‘Weaponising missinformation’ to destabilise the West – UK Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon warns of Russian hacking

However, due to the simplistic nature of the supposed DDoS attack on the voter registration site, many experts are saying that it is not the work of state hackers.

“This is a very serious allegation, and it should be thoroughly investigated by all appropriate means. However, I doubt that a serious actor, such as a nation state for example, can be behind this particular DDoS attack,” said  Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of web security firm, High-Tech Bridge.

“Governments have enough technical and financial resources to create smart botnets, simulating human behavior that would be hardly distinguishable from legitimate website visitors. Running a classic DDoS attack is too coarse, and would rather attract unnecessary attention to the external interference, trigger investigations and all other outcomes that smart attackers would avoid at any price.”

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