The Brexit vote might have been hacked by foreign governments, including China and Russia, according to a group of MPs.

As the MPs stated: “We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum.” The allegations arose when an EU Referendum voter website crashed on 7 June, 1 hour and 40 minutes before the deadline, resulting in the registration deadline being extended.  

The PACAC report

According to the report, released on Wednesday (12 April) by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC), MPS were concerned that the 2016 Brexit vote was tampered with by foreign states, but the only countries that everyone is suspicious of were China and Russia due to their use of cyber-attacks and manipulation of voter psychology. The report noted that: "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.”

The committee’s report also explained that: "The crash had indications of being a DDOS 'attack'….The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate." A Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS) is a cyber-attack that seeks to crash an online service or network by flooding it with traffic by multiple sources so it is overloaded and becomes unavailable. The report explained that such an attack can happen with the use of a botnet—a number of internet-connected computers infected with malware and controlled by hackers, without the knowledge of their owners, and used to send spam emails or infect with viruses. A botnet is also known as a zombie army, since each computer acts as a zombie, serving the wishes of the hacker who started the spam or virus transmission. 

The committee said that the event didn’t affect the results of the vote, but cybersecurity is an important issue that the government needs to address so it avoids further future attacks. Committee Chair Bernard Jenkin said: “We’ve seen this happen in other countries. Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence. We have taken advice on this and you cannot rule out the possibility it was a direct attack and so, the point we make about the Russians and Chinese psychological approach to this kind of thing, means that it would be entirely in character.” He also indicated that the motives could be either just disruption or seeking to benefit one side over the other.

Russian state-sponsored hackers targeting the UK

The Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) new security chief, Ciaran Martin, said in February, that Britain was being hit by dozens of cyber-attacks a month. Chancellor Philip Hammond, told the Sunday Telegraph that GCHQ had blocked 34,550 “potential attacks” in the past six months, something like 200 cases a day. According to the Sunday Times, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) was investigating attacks by both Chinese and Russian state-sponsored hackers on defence and foreign policy internet networks.

Martin said: “Over the last two years there has been a step change in Russian aggression in cyberspace. Part of that step change has been a series of attacks on political institutions, political parties, parliamentary organisations and that’s all very well evidenced by our international partners and widely accepted.”

Russian destabilisation of the EU 

The Russian interference in the US presidential campaign, as well as the allegations about Russia’s involvement in the French presidential elections, are worrying signs of Putin’s possible extended influence in the global scene, especially when in the current political schema everything shows that his desired goal is the destabilisation of the EU. It is no surprise then that his tentacles might have reached the UK, with the intension to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote. If China is also involved, that would also suggest that the ultimate goal is the same: the weakening of the European Union and its eventual collapse. At the moment, the EU is the largest economy in the world and the world’s largest trader of manufactured goods and services. China is the EU’s second trading partner behind the US. 

EU-Russia relations

Russia was the third (2014), and now is the fourth, trading partner of the EU and the EU is the first trading partner of Russia. But EU-Russia relations have entered a difficult phase after Russian aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine when in March 2016 EU foreign ministers agreed to adopt a series of sanctions. The EU and other Western countries have ended bilateral cooperation, froze EU assets of individuals close to Russia and targeted Russian defence, oil and financial sectors. The economic sanctions have hurt Russian economy, costing it as much as 2% of GDP a year. The limited access of Russia to Western capital markets is restricting Russian businesses to finance investments. The biggest factor, however, that affects Russian economy is the fall of the price of oil which is Russia’s main export.

In a letter, late January 2017, the leader of the European Union, Donald Tusk, had expressed that the biggest threat for the EU is China, Russia, radical Islam, war and terror. He stated: "The first threat, an external one, is related to the new geopolitical situation in the world and around Europe. An increasingly, let us call it, assertive China, especially on the seas, Russia's aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its neighbours, wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and in Africa, with radical Islam playing a major role, as well as worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable.”

Russia and Brexit

The Brexit vote was welcome news for Russians who could see that it would lead to a thaw of relations with the UK and the ending of EU sanctions that have hurt the Russian economy. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, tweeted that “Without Great Britain there won't be anyone in the EU left to stand up for sanctions against us so vigorously." Alexey Mukhin, a pro-Kremlin analyst, told NBC News: "This division of Europe is somewhat beneficial for Russia. Russia can effectively interact with individual European nations, but can't do it with Brussels." A former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, also said that “Putin, of course, did not cause the Brexit vote, but he and his foreign policy objectives stand to gain enormously from it." From the nationalist side of Russia’s political parties, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the LDPR, celebrated the Brexit vote by saying: "Rural, provincial, working-class Britain said 'no' to the union created by financial mafia, globalists and others."

Russians and Chinese are gleaming with satisfaction at the prospect of the EU’s collapse and Brexit appears as a “vindication of their political culture compared to the EU”: “There may be in part a psychological reaction here: when our Soviet Union broke up, you celebrated; now your own union is breaking up, and we will not be sorry," Russian expert Alexander Baunov said. 

Cognitive hacking

So, the possibility of Russia or China hacking and seeking to disrupt or influence British politics and public opinion is something that needs to be addressed. Similarly, the desire to destabilise the European Union and Russia’s support of all kinds of Brexit, Nexit or Frexits is something that should not be overlooked. But, the PACAC report touched upon a very interesting point: that Russia and China’s understanding of hacking is different than the US and the UK’s technical understanding of “cyber.” Russia and China use a “cognitive” approach based on psychology. What this means, is that cyber-attacks are not so much directed against tangible investments, buildings, or valuable things but against “softer targets”: the human mind. And this is why is becoming increasingly difficult to secure against such attacks which seek to change human users’ behaviours and perceptions. Cognitive attacks don’t destroy hardware or software, but seek to spread misinformation and influence users’ behaviour by manipulating their perception of reality. No surprises here, since Russia’s spread of false information in an age of fake news has become one of the most efficient ways to manipulate and exploit public opinion. Russia’s weaponisation of fake news to fight real wars or disrupt foreign sociopolitical events can no longer be ignored and institutes one of the biggest threats internationally.