Social media apps are displayed on the screen of a smartphone in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Britain Ready to Quiz Facebook and Twitter on Russian Meddling

(Bloomberg) -- Britain is so alarmed by the extent and scale of Russian interference that lawmakers are getting ready to interrogate Silicon Valley giants -- in person and in Washington.

At the same time, one of the country’s top spies took the unusual step of publicly declaring for the first time that the Kremlin carried out cyber attacks on Britain’s major energy, technology and media companies.

Alarmed by the mounting stack of revelations, a committee of U.K. lawmakers will travel in February to take evidence in person from Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google executives about Russian meddling, including in the Brexit referendum of last year.

“This is one of the biggest threats to democracy,” Damian Collins, the chairman of the U.K. parliamentary committee that oversees technology, said in a telephone interview outlining his plan. “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.

Greater scrutiny is also happening in the U.S., where Twitter’s acting general counsel -- Sean Edgett -- told lawmakers that the company found 2,752 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. Collins said that both countries are “in the early stages” of understanding the threat.

Cyber Attacks

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 organization’s head, Ciaran Martin, said in a speech on Wednesday that “Russia is seeking to undermine the international system.”

It was only on Monday that Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of being behind “a sustained campaign” of cyber espionage and disruption. “We know what you are doing,” May said in a speech directed at Vladimir Putin, in which she warned the Russian leader that he would not succeed.

At the start of November, Britain’s Electoral Commission announced an investigation into Arron Banks, a millionaire insurance entrepreneur who funded campaigns in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. The move followed calls by lawmakers for a probe into whether “dark money’’ played a role in the vote.

Foreign governments such as Russia and China may have been responsible for a crash in the voter registration website in the weeks before the referendum, according to a parliamentary committee.

The Times of London newspaper said Wednesday Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during the referendum campaign in an apparently coordinated attempt to affect the outcome of the vote, citing research for an upcoming paper by data scientists at Swansea University in Wales and the University of California, Berkeley.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Tuesday May’s comments were “irresponsible and groundless” and argued she was trying to distract attention from internal government splits over Brexit.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.