We must guard against people interfering in elections, says Taoiseach

We must guard against people interfering in elections, says Taoiseach
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listen to the national anthems during a welcoming ceremony prior to talks at the chancellery in Berlin. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that Ireland could become a soft target for international organisations and secret backers trying to undermine the EU if we hold any referenda on the future of Europe in the coming years.

He made the claim as he admitted the Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised serious questions over data protection rules and said the reality is the technology involved is developing faster than laws to prevent it.

Speaking to reporters at the Bundestag in Berlin after meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Varadkar said he remains "confident" Ireland has a "robust" data protection system in place to prevent future attacks.

However, saying "I don't think we can be complacent", he added there may be "forces" attempting to influence Irish elections and referenda, and that any vote on the future of Europe could see Ireland become the focal point of an cyber security attack.

"I am confident we have a robust Data Protection Commission system in place, but I don’t think we can be anyway complacent about the risks that are posed by people interfering in elections, interfering in referendums.

"While we have no evidence of people trying to interfere in our referendums, or in our elections, I am always conscious that if a future referendum on Europe for example was held in Ireland, there may be forces who might take an interest in abusing people's privacy and interfering in elections.

"So its certainly not something that we can be complacent about and we are very conscious of the fact that these new technologies are developing so fast, that they develop almost faster than out legislation can develop," Mr Varadkar said.

We must guard against people interfering in elections, says Taoiseach

While there is no clear evidence to date Ireland has been targeted by any international organisations misusing privacy data in an attempt to influence elections or referenda, this country is particularly vulnerable to the issue in the event of EU votes.

This is because, unlike most other EU member states, Ireland decides on EU treaties by public vote and not through parliament alone - the prime examples of which were the Nice and Lisbon treaties - meaning the country could be seen as a soft target.

The issue has been thrown into the spotlight after The Observer and The Guardian newspapers alongside Channel Four combined in a shocking expose last night over Cambridge Analytica's involvement in a series of recent worldwide elections.

It is alleged, but denied by the company, that Cambridge Analytica illegally used the private information of up to 50 million people on Facebook to influence their decisions on the US 2016 presidential election, Brexit and other key votes.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has rejected concerns Ireland allowed the issue to go unchecked in this country for a number of years due to the fact Facebook has its European headquarters in Dublin.

Asked yesterday to comment on long-held German government concerns Ireland is "light touch" when it comes to data protection rules and failed to act on Austrian data protection concerns for three years despite being warned individuals' private data was being exploited, Mr Varadkar insisted action was taken.

"I understand that loophole was closed back in 2015 and since then we have really strengthened the office of the Data Protection Commissioner, we have increased the resources considerably in recent years and that is going to continue," he said.

When his claim action was taken was challenged by a reporter, who said technology experts say no action was taken, the Taoiseach added: "Like I say, a lot has been done. That loophole has been closed."

- Irish Examiner

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