Government to counter threats from cyber-criminals

New National Cyber Security Centre will aim to prevent attacks on digital databases

The Government is to ramp up its capabilities to prevent potential cyber attacks on digital networks and databases in response to growing threats from hackers and cyber-criminals.

It is to set up a service that will assist Government departments and agencies, major companies and digital service providers, as well as the major energy, transport, water, and communications utilities, to bolster their defences against such attacks.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten will bring a memorandum to Government in early September proposing the formal establishment a National Cyber Security Centre.

The new centre will be an independent office of the Minister’s department comparable to the Data Protection Commissioner’s office.

It will be responsible for reducing vulnerability to cyber attacks, and also for leading the State’s response when cyber attacks occur.

Its establishment formed a central recommendation of the National Cyber Security Strategy, published in 2015.

Officials from the Department of Communications and the Office of Public Works are currently in discussions with University College Dublin about locating the centre on its campus, with an appropriate level of staffing.

Large-scale attacks

A number of governments as well as the US defence forces and large organisations have been the victims of large-scale cyber attacks in recent years.

While no high-profile attacks have taken place in Ireland, apart from the hacking of the Fine Gael website in 2011, there have been many instances of "phishing" attacks, where cyber-criminals pose as utilities or financial institutions in order to procure by deceit the personal financial details of customers.

There have been moves at Government and a wider EU level to begin preparations to deal with more wide-scale and serious attacks from hackers, cyber-criminals, so-called “hactivists” and others involved in cyber espionage.

Vital supplies

Not only are Government databases and networks vulnerable, but cyber attacks can also shut down vital supplies such as electricity or public transport, or can target digital services ad broadband providers.

The move to strengthen the Government's apparatus will also reflect a new European Union directive aimed at setting minimum capabilities for network and information security.

Legislation will be needed to give effect to the directive in Ireland. This is expected to be published in November.

The memorandum being brought forward by Mr Naughten will highlight the growing importance of the digital economy to Ireland.

The strategy document stated it contributed 5 per cent of national GDP and was growing at approximately 20 per cent annually.

“There are few sectors that do not rely on information communication technologies for their operations, including a wide range of critical economic infrastructure such as electricity, gas, financial services and water supply,” it said.

“Nine out of the top 10 global software companies, all of the top 10 global ICT companies, and the top 10 ‘born on the Internet’ companies possess significant operations in Ireland.

“Protecting and sustaining this investment, which provides employment for over 100,000 people, is a vital priority for Ireland,” it said.