LONDON // A website which allowed Britons to register to vote in last year’s European Union referendum might have been targeted by foreign hackers causing it to crash before the deadline, a parliamentary committee said on Wednesday.
More than a million potential voters applied to register online in the run up to the deadline on June 7, two weeks before last year’s vote and the government extended the cut-off point after the website crashed. Officials initially blamed the crash on a late surge in demand, mainly from young voters, but the committee said the website could have been subjected to a “distributed denial of service” attack, in which a site is overwhelmed with traffic.
A report by parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) said, “PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference,” although it added that there was no reason to believe any interference had affected the outcome.
The report did not say who might have been behind the cyber attack but named Russia and China as countries with a sophisticated approach to cyber-interference. Russia has been accused of trying to influence the 2016 US election and the committee said the government needed to ensure future elections and referendums were monitored with plans in place to respond to and contain any cyber attacks.
“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 report said. “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.”
The committee, made up of members of the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the British parliament, was also critical of the government’s failure to prepare for a vote for Brexit and former prime minister David Cameron’s motives for calling the referendum in the first place, saying using plebiscites as a “bluff call” to close down “unwelcome debate” was questionable.
Mr Cameron, who campaigned to stay in the EU while many in his party backed Brexit, quit after losing the vote.
“There was no proper planning for a Leave vote so the EU referendum opened up much new controversy and left the prime minister’s credibility destroyed,” the report said. and recommended that in future, the sitting government should “continue in office and take responsibility for the referendum result in either eventuality.”