London (AFP) - Russia has launched cyber attacks on the UK media, telecoms and energy sectors in the past year, Britain's cyber security chief said Wednesday, amid reports of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.
"Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear," Ciaran Martin, head of Britain's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), said at a technology conference in London, according to his office.
"Russian interference, seen by the NCSC over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunications and energy sectors," Martin said.
The centre has coordinated the government's response to 590 significant incidents since it was created in 2016, though it has not detailed which were linked to Russia.
Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday accused Moscow of "seeking to weaponise information" in order to "sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions".
Russia's cyber activities include "deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images", she said in a speech.
The scathing criticism was rejected by Russia's foreign ministry, which accused May of trying to distract the British public from problems at home.
- Parliamentary probes -
Moscow's alleged attempts to influence last year's referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union are part of investigations underway in London.
On Wednesday, May told lawmakers that parliament's intelligence and security committee would be looking into Russian interference.
Meanwhile parliament's digital, culture, media and sport committee has requested data from Twitter and Facebook on Russia-linked accounts, and aims to interview social media executives at the British embassy in Washington early next year.
Damian Collins, the committee chairman, said it was "beyond doubt" that Russia had interfered in UK politics.
He said there was a pattern of behaviour of Russian organisations seeking out opportunities to create division, unrest and instability in the West.
"Foreign organisations have the ability to manipulate social media platforms to target voters abroad," Collins told AFP.
"This is seriously organised buildings of hundreds of people engaged in propagating every day fake news through social media," he added.
"It is one of the biggest threats our democracies face and we have to be serious about combatting it."
But May's spokesman emphasised that "There has been no evidence of successful interference in our electoral processes."
- Pro-Brexit 'bots' -
Researchers at Swansea University in Wales, working with the University of California, Berkeley, looked at 18,000 Twitter users who had registered in Russian but were tweeting in English around the time of the referendum.
Russian-related accounts put out around 45,000 Brexit tweets on June 23 and 24, of which 13,180 were at least six words long, Swansea researcher Tho Pham told AFP.
"The massive number of Russian-related tweets were only created a few days before the voting day, reached its peak during the voting and result days then dropped immediately afterwards," the research paper said.
They were posted by both "bots" and humans, with the majority of the posts pro-Brexit.
Bots spreading misinformation into the echo chambers of social media "might lead to the case that bots could shape public opinions in negative ways", the paper concluded.
Meanwhile researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who examined 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the United States, found that 419 were operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency and attempting to influence British politics, The Guardian reported.
Professor Laura Cram, the university's neuropolitics research director, told the newspaper they tweeted about Brexit 3,468 times -- mostly after the June 23 referendum.
The content overall was "quite chaotic and it seems to be aimed at wider disruption. There's not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration", she said.