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Why is a Russian ‘bot’ so interested in news from this Suffolk village?

PUBLISHED: 09:39 22 December 2018

Brandeston's village news has been viewed by a Russian 'bot' Picture: ANDREW HIRST

Brandeston's village news has been viewed by a Russian 'bot' Picture: ANDREW HIRST

Andrew Hirst

It shares news about coffee mornings, charity fundraisers and unwanted goods for sale.

Oleksandr Talavera has researched social media interference in politics Picture: CONTRIBUTEDOleksandr Talavera has researched social media interference in politics Picture: CONTRIBUTED

But the village news emailed out to people in Brandeston near Framlingham is being viewed by a Russian ‘bot’ every time it is sent – before anyone else opens the email.

Darryl Morgan, who administers the mailing list, became suspicious when he noticed a Russian email address was the first to open every message indicating it may be a ‘bot’ – an application which opens an email automatically as soon as it is sent without human intervention.

“I don’t know why whey would want to look at what’s going on in Brandeston,” he said. “They might find out when our next coffee morning is, but other than that I can’t imagine it would be very interesting.”

Mr Morgan said the address had been removed from the list and no personal data had been accessed.

But Nicholas Caldwell, who is professor of information systems engineering at the University of Suffolk, said that while infiltrating Brandeston’s mailing list may seem “trivial” the information could be used for a number of disruptive purposes.

Prof Caldwell said email addresses could be harvested or even matched with stolen datasets found on the ‘dark web’ to hack related accounts. He said the emails could also be used to perform “sentiment analysis” to learn issues of interest.

Prof Caldwell added that cyberspace had become a “battleground” where democratic nations were frequently targeted by attempts to influence public opinion, inflame argument and sow division

Oleksandr Talavera, a professor at Swansea University, said the discovery of one Russian account was not enough to draw conclusions. However he acknowledged Russian hackers may target mailing lists as part of attempts to gather intelligence.

Prof Talavera was, for example, involved in an academic study, which found Russian bots accounted for 20% of Brexit-related tweets from a sample of 28.6 million in the lead-up to the EU referendum.

He said the bots made use of the so-called “echo chamber” effect whereby people are likely to embrace “fake news” that coincides with their own opinions,

Prof Talavera said although social media had taken steps, the threat had not been eradicated

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