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Sun Mar 18, 2018, 09:36 AM

Ireland on the front line in Russia's new hacking war

The use of a rare military grade nerve agent in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in England was a deliberately provocative move by Moscow. The Russian government knew that blame for the attack would quickly be laid at the Kremlin's door. The West would be outraged, diplomats expelled, and further sanctions imposed. President Putin's regime wants us to think that they do not care. The point of the attack was to send a message to the West: if we are capable of using chemical weapons in the UK, then tread lightly in future when it comes to Ukraine, Syria and the recruitment of intelligence agents, assistance to dissidents in Russia.

What if anything does this have to do with Ireland? The answer is that Ireland, too, is already under attack from Russia. Irish cyber security analysts have noted a significant escalation in Russian cyber attacks on the Irish public and private sector alike. This is part of a wider general pattern of increased Russian intelligence activity in Ireland. Moscow abides by few if any rules when it comes to espionage. Critical national infrastructure - health, water, electricity services - is increasingly at risk, as the Russian state-linked cyber attack on ESB demonstrated last year. Ciaran Martin, the Northern Irish head of the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), has warned that a Category One (C1) attack - crippling an area of critical national infrastructure for a period - is highly probable in the next few years. Responding to and containing a C1 attack on the UK will be a significant challenge for both states. The risk of contagion is obvious.

Ireland is an important cyber battlefield between Russia and the West. Some of the most sophisticated software companies in the world are based here, producing technology that is invested in and utilised by governments and businesses from around the world. Russia wants to hack these companies to steal secrets that gives it an advantage in the escalating cyber war. Ireland is not only a technology hub but it is also the fibre-optic bridge for superfast internet cables between North America and Europe; the protection of these cables in Irish waters is a matter of increasing concern to our Nato allies.


Ireland must also have the capacity to keep intelligence received from foreign partners secure - doubts persist in the US and in Europe about whether Ireland has the security infrastructure to do so, limiting the extent of intelligence that foreign governments will share. But the State also has sensitive policy differences relating to on-going discussions with even its closest allies such as the UK. These must remain secret. The Garda Crime and Security Branch has won a reputation at home and abroad for resourcefulness and tenacity. But ultimately specialised units such as Security and Intelligence and the National Cyber Crime Bureau are relatively starved of resources compared with many similarly sized European countries. The Government should also move to introduce a National Security Bill, articulating its case for increased security vigilance and more effective oversight (including by the judiciary) over the national intelligence function. All these measures will require a modest investment of political and fiscal capital. But the dividends are critically important: nothing less than the measure of Irish sovereignty in the 21st Century is at stake.

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