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Government fortifying IT systems for 'fear of Russian interference' in European elections

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted at the start of the year that he is concerned about potential interference.

Image: Shutterstock/PORTRAIT IMAGES ASIA BY NONWARIT

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT is in the process of upgrading its IT security across various departments ahead of the local and European elections for fear that they could be subject to outside interference. 

TheJournal.ie understands that sophisticated cyber security features were added to the internal infrastructure of many Government department’s systems in recent weeks.

Late last year, the Government issued a report which identified the cyber related risks to the electoral process and made a number of recommendations to mitigate them. 

While the Government has not explicitly said that the upgrade is to protect elections, there is a serious fear that Russia may attempt to influence European elections, meaning Ireland could be compromised despite the small number of MEPs we have.

The government report found: “Overall, the assessment finds that risks to the electoral process in Ireland are relatively low, taking into account the mitigation factors already in place. It is recognised, however, that the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyber-attacks on the electoral system pose more substantial risks and that this is in line with EU findings and recent international experience.”

The report identified seven proposals which are currently in the process of being implemented. 

One includes the regulation and transparency of online political advertising, which the Government has earmarked as a priority. 

The report states that the Government plans on engaging with stakeholders such as political parties, industry organisations, academia, civil society and NGOs to develop understanding of the evolving risks to the electoral process and wider disinformation and develop proposals for regulation.

Security analyst Tom Clonan told TheJournal.ie that there is a form of “hybrid warfare” taking place across the world and that Ireland is not immune. 

He said: “There are a number of ways in which Ireland can be vulnerable to this sort of warfare. For example, Dublin is home to heads of the world’s biggest social media platforms which we have seen before have been targeted. 

“There are other ways in which cyber terrorism can affect us, be that by someone hacking into our electricity grid. Now this all sounds very tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, I know, but it’s a real concern. 

“It’s all about destabilising Europe and unravelling the Nato project by the likes of Russia or China. We have already seen allegations of interference in elections in the US as well as in the UK. The cynic in me has to say that Brexit and the Trump presidency were perfect tools to destabilise Europe. Look at what’s happening with Brexit now – the whole existence of the European Union is being threatened.”

Irish intelligence spotted how vulnerable we were prior to Trum’p's election and the Brexit vote.

We can see from the White Paper on Defence published in 2015 that the threat of cyber attacks existed. An excerpt from that piece shows how susceptible Ireland is to an attack on cyber infrastructure. 

Ireland, like most of Europe, has a highly developed infrastructure that is, in most cases, almost entirely dependent on information and communication technologies (ICT). Critical national infrastructure such as energy, water, social welfare, telecommunications, banking and healthcare are dependent on ICT not just to operate effectively, but to operate at all. The cyber threat exists for government and public utilities as well as for commercial entities and individuals.

It added: “National security can come under threat from international espionage or attempted sabotage of the software necessary to run critical infrastructure. The experience gained from such attacks has heightened awareness of weaknesses in security and has illustrated greater sophistication in the methods of attack on systems.”

Varadkar’s worries

Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years. 751 MEPs are elected to the European Parliament, which has been directly elected since 1979. The elections take place this May.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted at the start of the year that he is concerned about potential interference.

When asked about the situation in Europe, Varadkar said: “I would certainly be concerned about external interference in European elections. It can come from many sources, I wouldn’t particularly hone in on any particular source.

“We do know there has been election interference in quite a number of elections and protest movements and so on. That is something as EU leaders we are quite concerned with, we discussed it in Brussels last week.

We all know it is a real risk. What people can’t come up with is an easy solution as to what you actually do about it other than notifying it and calling it out and saying it is happening.

A spokesperson for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment confirmed that steps are being taken to beef up security. 

“In 2018, an Interdepartmental Group, led by the Department of the Taoiseach was established on the Security of Ireland’s Electoral Process & Disinformation. This group issued its first report in September 2018. The report identified the cyber related risks to the electoral process and made a number of recommendations to mitigate against these risks.

“Work on all recommendations is progressing.

“Safeguarding our electoral processes is a matter for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, supported by a number of Departments, including the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment. 

“The National Cyber Security Centre will also be engaging with all political parties over the coming months and will be providing them with advice and recommendations in terms of securing their network and information systems.”

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