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MPs call for cyber monitoring before national votes


Parliamentary committee’s report on EU referendum says registration website crash could have been caused by distributed denial of service attack

A parliamentary committee has called on the Government to set up mechanisms to monitor cyber activity during elections and any future referendums, based on worries that there could have been foreign interference in last year’s EU referendum.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has made the proposal as part of its report into the lessons from the Brexit contest, along with a call to enable people to check online if they have been registered to vote.

One of the prime issues addressed in the report is the crash of the Register to Vote website two weeks before the referendum took place, caused by an unexpectedly high demand partly from people who did not know if they had to re-register.

This has prompted the committee to endorse a proposal by the Electoral Commission that the Government should develop an online service for people to check whether they are on the voting roll. It acknowledges that there would be technical issues to overcome, but says this would be an important step in preventing future crashes.

Botnet fear

The Government has said the website went down due to a last minute spike, but the report says it had failed to mitigate against this with the necessary level of testing and precautions, and that the crash could have been caused by a distributed denial of service attack using botnets – computers that have been taken over without their owners being aware.

This comes following reports of cyber interference from Russia in the US presidential election, and has led the committee to urge the Government to work with GCHQ, the National Cyber Security Centre, the Electoral Commission and local authorities to build a mechanism to monitor cyber activity. It also calls for annual reports to Parliament on the issue.

The report says that overall the Electoral Commission did a good job of running the referendum, but wonders if its dual role as the regulator and being in charge of the delivery could create difficulties. It stops short, however, of saying the responsibilities should be allocated to different bodies.

Bernard Jenkin MP (pictured), the chair of the committee, said: "The use of the machinery of government during referendums has a significant effect on public trust and confidence. Referendums, therefore, need to be designed in such a way as to provide the utmost clarity for parliamentarians, campaigners and, above all, the electorate.

“It is of the highest importance that the referendum process is seen to be fair, by both sides, and that the result is agreed to, even if not with, by both sides."

Image by Policy Exchange CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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