Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Fraud Risk Management

UK 'Failed' to Probe Threat of Russian Election Interference

Parliament Panel's Report Slams Government for Not Investigating Russian Activities
UK 'Failed' to Probe Threat of Russian Election Interference

The British government was underprepared for Russia's alleged attempts to influence the outcomes of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the 2017 general election and failed to conduct adequate investigations, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.K. Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee.

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The report, which has been heavily redacted to protect U.K. intelligence community sources, was submitted to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in October 2019. But it wasn’t publicly released until Tuesday, after a contentious, nine-month delay.

The report paints a view of the government's dysfunctional efforts to confront and understand Russia's alleged interference. It concludes that because of the government's failure to adequately investigate suspected interference, there is scant evidence of what may have actually occurred.

The U.K. was unprepared for possible outside influence during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, according to the report, which says Russia attempted to interfere. The report also notes that no follow-up investigations were launched to review attempted interference after either the Brexit referendum or the 2017 general election.

"We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference. This situation is in stark contrast to the U.S. handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public," the report states (see: Russia Targeted All 50 States During 2016 Election: Report).

The report points out that the U.K. intelligence community made note of Russia's success in hacking and then releasing information from the U.S. Democratic National Committee in 2016, concluding that Britain's preconceived notion that Russian influence in election cycles was minimal was incorrect (see: Mueller: Russian Interference 'Serious' Threat to Democracy).

Assessment Impossible

But the U.K. report says it's impossible to determine what level of success Russia attained in attempting to influence any U.K. election outcome, predominantly because the government collected no evidence that would have allowed conclusions to be drawn.

"The impact of any such attempts would be difficult - if not impossible - to assess, and we have not sought to do so,” the report states. “However, it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a U.K. democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not."

Stewart Hosie, a member of Parliament who is one of the few serving members of the Intelligence and Security Committee whose tenure dates from when the report was being prepared, strongly condemned the government's inaction. "No one in government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference with a '10-foot pole' and no one knew if Russia had tried to interfere with the 2016 EU referendum 'because they did not want to know,'" he said at a Tuesday press conference.

Report's Key Findings

The Intelligence and Security Committee says the U.K. failed to investigate Russian election-interference operations despite Britain's knowledge that Russian intelligence agencies and organized crime gangs were actively operating against British targets.

"It appears that Russia considers the U.K. one of its top Western intelligence targets: While we may not experience the level and type of threat that countries on Russia’s borders suffer, witnesses have suggested that we would sit just behind the U.S. and NATO in any priority list," the report states.

Another element leading to potential Russian influence in the U.K. is the influx of Russian oligarchs into Britain in recent years, the report states. It says this is likely due to Britain's "light and limited touch to regulation" and the fact that, "the U.K. welcomed Russian money, and few questions - if any - were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth."

This Russian money has been invested in an influence-building campaign utilizing public relations firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions, the report states.

"In brief, Russian influence in the U.K. is 'the new normal,' and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the U.K. business and social scene and accepted because of their wealth," the report states.

One upside from the report is that it concludes that the U.K.'s paper-based electoral ballot system remains relatively impervious to attempts to disrupt vote tallies. But it says that there have been no attempts to gauge or measure the suspected impact of Russian influence operations on the voting population in recent years.

Executive Editor Mathew Schwartz contributed to this story.

About the Author

Doug Olenick

Doug Olenick

Former News Editor, ISMG

Olenick has covered the cybersecurity and computer technology sectors for more than 25 years. Prior to his stint as ISMG as news editor, Olenick was online editor for SC Media, where he covered every aspect of the cybersecurity industry and managed the brand's online presence. Earlier, he worked at TWICE - This Week in Consumer Electronics - for 15 years. He also has contributed to, TheStreet and Mainstreet.

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