Sunday 22 September 2019

UK politicians probe Russian 'interference' in Brexit vote

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Giles Turner

Britain is so alarmed by the extent and scale of Russian political interference that lawmakers are getting ready to quiz Twitter, Google and Facebook executives.

A committee of UK politicians is set to travel to the US in February to take evidence in person from Silicon Valley bosses about Russian meddling, including in the Brexit referendum of last year.

The move comes after it was revealed that the Kremlin carried out cyber attacks on Britain's major energy, technology and media companies.

Damian Collins, the chairman of the UK parliamentary committee that oversees technology, said Russian interference is "one of the biggest threats to democracy".

He told Bloomberg: "People operating from a building in St Petersburg can target fake news and hyper-partisan commentary at millions of people at a very low cost and quickly."

If the committee takes evidence at the British embassy, then it is subject to the same legal status as testimony given to the House of Commons in London.

Britain's National Cyber Security Centre, part of the country's communications interception agency, has dealt with more than 600 cyber attacks since it was created last year. The organisation's head, Ciaran Martin, said in a speech that "Russia is seeking to undermine the international system".

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of being behind "a sustained campaign" of cyber espionage and disruption.

"We know what you are doing," Mrs May said in a speech directed at Vladimir Putin, in which she warned the Russian leader that he would not succeed.

Reports of the meddling in the Brexit referendum led former Labour minister George Foulkes to question the legitimacy of the vote.

But Brexit minister Martin Callanan dismissed his claims, advising the peer not to believe everything he read in the media.

The exchange came after it was reported that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from Russia had published posts about Brexit.

Mr Foulkes asked the minister if he had seen "the disturbing reports in the media today that the Russian government has been using data transfer through social media to influence the outcome of the EU referendum in favour of the leave side".

"Doesn't this not now cast doubts about the legitimacy and credibility of that referendum?" he said.

"That referendum can no longer be considered to represent the will of the British people."

Mr Callanan told him: "Unsurprisingly, you will find that I don't agree with you.

"You shouldn't necessarily believe everything you read in the press and the media."

Irish Independent

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