Spaces for People: Hacker targeted Edinburgh road measures consultation

A computer hacker opposed to the Spaces for People scheme tried to fraudulently submit tens of thousands of negative responses to Edinburgh City Council’s recent consultation.

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Council officers say more than half of the responses to its controversial Spaces for People consultation were from a single person, who used a bot to submit more than 18,000 responses.

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The Spaces for People programme was first introduced in April 2020 as a means of maintaining social distancing and giving more public space over to cyclists and pedestrians.

Mystery hacker targeted the Spaces for People consultation

The current measures were introduced using Temporary Traffic Regulation Orders (TTROs) which allowed the council to install traffic measures without prior consultation for up to 18 months.

Now, the council is switching to using Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETROs), which will allow council officers to maintain the new schemes without formal consultation.

To inform which schemes were kept using ETRO powers - the council launched a city-wide consultation, with the results set to be presented to the council’s transport committee on Thursday June 17.

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The council has previously said it received around 17,600 responses to the consultation, but now council officers have revealed they actually received more than double that number.

However, council officers noticed that more than 18,000 responses came from one IP address - leading to Police Scotland being called and the fraudulent responses being stricken from the consultation.

Councillor Lesley Macinnes, the council’s transport committee convener, said: “We realised relatively early on there was someone putting in a high number of highly negative responses, and it quite quickly became apparent it was some sort of fraudulent bot activity.

“It’s quite an unusual level of undermining of a consultation like this in the public sector, it’s not been something which has been welcome to us but we spotted it.

“We can assure you that the responses we have used in our decision-making were essentially the ‘clean’ responses, so we were able to remove the impact of the fraudulent activity in the results we used going forward to make our assessment.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that someone has taken this action, because it is undermining the relationship between the council and the public, and our attempt to genuinely understand what the public is thinking on this matter.”

Council officers say the fraud was spotted by tracing the IP address used to submit the responses.

Following the discovery of the fraud, officers capped the number of responses from each IP address at ten, yo protect the integrity of the consultation,

However, council officers were also able to identify genuine multiple responses coming from single IP addresses, such as at a business or a school, and accept these responses into the consultation.The council referred the incident to Police Scotland, which visited the address of the man who submitted the responses, but did not accept that the man’s behaviour amounted to a criminal offence.

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: "We received an allegation of fraudulent responses being submitted as part of the Spaces for People consultation in Edinburgh on Tuesday, 18 May, 2021.

“Enquiries have been carried out and no criminality established, and we have liaised with the council on this matter."

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