Bots target EU referendum re-take petition

Thousands of signatures were traced back to Vatican City and Antarctica

Automated bots have targeted the petition calling for a second EU referendum after it was discovered thousands of signatures came from outside the EU.

Users of message board site 4Chan revealed they had set up scripts to automatically sign the petition multiple times, with one person boasting they had signed thousands of times.

"I voted 33,000 times. Left a script running while I was taking a shower," wrote one member.

Thousands of signatures were traced back to Vatican City and the South Sandwich Islands, despite them having a population of only 800 and 40 respectively, as well as North Korea and Antarctica. As a result, the House of Commons petitions committee said it had removed 77,000 signatures and is investigating further into the fraud.

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The majority of the votes now seem to originate from the UK, although it is thought some of those too could be the result of bots running scripts to falsify the signatures.

Rik Ferguson of cyber security firm Trend Micro told BBC News on of the problems with the government's petitions system is  there is no method to verify signatures are being added by real people, such as Captcha.

"With any online property that is designed for interaction, you need a mechanism in place to defeat automated means of adding content," Ferguson said.

"4chan is famous for this sort of mischief - and if websites don't have systems in place, they will get abused," he added.

The petition materialised following a surprising win for those voting to leave the EU at the end of last week. However, rather than being set up by a disgruntled remain voter, it was actually set up by a leave campaigner before the referendum when opinion polls pointed at the nation voting to stay in the EU by a narrow margin.

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