UK Government chose not to investigate if Russian hackers interfered in Brexit referendum, report reveals

No-one in Government knew if Russia had interfered in the EU vote, and they actively avoided any effort to ask questions to find out…

Graham Cluley
@gcluley

The big story in the UK today is the release of a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics.

The good news for the UK Government is that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) says it has not seen any evidence that the Kremlin sought to influence the outcome of the controversial and highly-divisive Brexit vote.

The bad news is that the ISC blames this on a failure by anyone in the UK Government to conduct any formal investigation into the claims.

According to the damning report, neither Prime Minister Boris Johnson or his predecessor Theresa May looked for evidence that Russia might have interfered in the UK’s 2016 referendum into whether it should quit the European Union or not.

In short – no-one in the UK Government knew if Russia had interfered in the EU referendum, and they actively avoided any effort to ask questions to find out if it had or not.

The report, which was originally expected to be released last October but was controversially blocked from release by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the run-up to a general election, paints a picture of the threat Russia poses to the UK’s national security.

It also claims that lessons must be learned from the mistakes made by the UK Government in its response to Russian meddling.

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Although the report confirms that the “mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound,” there are considerable concerns that Russia has engaged in disinformation campaigns and political influence operations.

This can range from hackers stealing and weaponising data, to Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik publishing pro-Brexit and anti-EU propaganda, to the use of armies of social networking bots to spread fake news and sow division.

Brexit is a divisive issue in the UK, just as gun laws and abortion are in the United States.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out who might benefit from Western countries being divided.

As we all know, there have been investigations done into Russian meddling into the 2016 US presidential election. It seems very odd that the UK chose not to conduct similar formal investigations into Russian meddling in its affairs, even though it is accepted that the Kremlin did attempt to influence the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

Of course, there is no guarantee that even when evidence is discovered by the intelligence community that it will necessarily be taken seriously by those in positions of power.

The ISC has called on the UK Government to launch a formal investigation looking into Russian interference in the EU referendum.

However, despite confirming that “it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents,” the UK government has told the ISC that a formal investigation into Russian meddling during the Brexit referendum is not necessary:

We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.

The Intelligence and Security Agencies produce and contribute to regular assessments of the threat posed by Hostile State Activity, including around potential interference in UK democratic processes. We keep such assessments under review and, where necessary, update
them in response to new intelligence, including during democratic events such as elections and referendums. Where new information emerges, the Government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public. Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.

It’s a shame the threat is not being taken more seriously. Learning lessons now could help prevent future cyber-attacks designed to interfere with our democracy.

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Graham Cluley is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s when he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and is an international public speaker on the topic of computer security, hackers, and online privacy. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley, or drop him an email.

3 comments on “UK Government chose not to investigate if Russian hackers interfered in Brexit referendum, report reveals”

  1. Very simply put, those who benefited from the meddling also were the ones in power. I don't think the question is whether or not it is being taken seriously, but about whether or not certain parties and politicians are prioritizing personal gain over damaging their own countries and what those countries can do to stop this from happening. Democracy itself is under attack with misinformation and it is clear that those who benefit have no problem in rolling back democratic norms to consolidate power for themselves, even if it means turning a blind eye to (or more realistically) passively encouraging such actions taken by geopolitical rivals.

  2. Only Russia? Can we assume that no other countries where involved? What about financial organisations, I heard about one financial company that made a lot of money when the value of the pound fell.

  3. So-called democracy does not exist and rules will be changed if threatens the positions of established power, but we should use what is left from our freedoms to limit the destructive impact of narcissistic politicians serving greedy corporations.
    Embrace free speech until it lasts.

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