Ireland is at international crossroads and in the crosshairs for cyber attack

In the real world, our defences are adequate for about as long as we are lucky enough to be left alone, writes Gerard Howlin

Ireland is at international crossroads and in the crosshairs for cyber attack

In the real world, our defences are adequate for about as long as we are lucky enough to be left alone, writes Gerard Howlin

Ships, being big, attract attention. The squall between Paul Kehoe, the minister of state responsible for defence and the Defence Forces for which he is politically responsible, is a totem for something else. The row was about whether naval vessels were docked because there wasn’t sufficient crew to man them, or, as the minister claims, they were there for necessary repairs.

The bad feeling comes from years of neglect of the Defence Forces. It’s aggravated by not having a senior minister in charge. The Taoiseach is nominally minister for defence. Kehoe minds the shop. It is neither convincing nor effective. These issues are important for the defence forces. The bigger one for us is that on defence we have a 1960s capability focused on a 1930s threat.

Conventional threats and requirements still exist. However, the real threat to the State is whether we can in the future hold free and fair elections. Another, because we host an extraordinarily dense concentration of mainly American-owned hi-tech industries, is whether we could become a theatre of covert operations against them. Ireland ranks ninth in the top 500 list of countries with the most advanced computers. The scope for mischief is enormous. Russia or China, to name two, could see us as the soft underbelly of American interests. Damage through espionage or cyber-attacks could be inflicted here, without the need for a more direct confrontation in the United States. Any sense of increased vulnerability would be a drag on the attractiveness of our foreign direct investment offer.

For this State to be used as a site of operations against international companies would be a serious matter. Interfering in elections would be a direct attack on our sovereignty. A future border poll would be ripe for exploitation. Another opportunity would be a constitutional referendum to ratify a European treaty. In the latter case, an almost entire continent of 27 countries could be enmeshed at the cost of small change and little risk to the perpetrator in a poll compromised by covert online activity here.

We have more capacity to monitor the expenditure of election candidates than we do to protect ourselves against a cyber threat to our elections, our critical utilities or businesses. The real issue about ships being tied up is not a lack of defence capability. It is that we don’t have a national security strategy. It isn’t that we are badly organised, poorly equipped, or undermanned. It is that we haven’t figured out the threats we are facing. So we go on with limited capability, most of which is focused on historical events, not future eventualities. Our capability, such as it is, is neither focused nor coordinated.

There is, and it is welcome, apparent recognition in the Government of how exposed we are. A National Security Analysis Centre has been set up. It is led by Dermot Woods, the Department of Justice civil servant with the most experience in the security area. He will report to Martin Fraser, the secretary-general at the Department of the Taoiseach. It’s too soon to say where between box-ticking and substantive overhaul this will lead. At this juncture, it looks right on paper. In the real world, our defences are adequate for about as long as we are lucky enough to be left alone.

Unlike the Normans at Baginbun the next invader is unlikely to land on the beach or arrive by air. Cyber is an always-on, always-open border. It is an instrument of power which, like war, is the continuation of politics by other means. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump there is nothing fanciful about covert interference in the democratic process. It is now the new normal. It leaves its intended legacy. Namely contested legitimacy, destabilisation of once fixed norms, and a real sense of how fragile democracy is.

Caitríona Heinl, an internationally recognised expert in international security cyber issues, published a paper just weeks ago entitled ‘Russia and China — Their impact on Irish security from a cyber perspective.’ It’s sobering.

She notes that: “Russia is perceived to be especially proficient at integrating cyber espionage, attack and influence operations to achieve political and military objectives.” In Heinl’s opinion, China’s stance under President Xi Jinping raises questions “on the potential implications for the liberal democratic order and liberal democracies”. What we have to fear most, in terms of external threat, is now standard issue elsewhere.

Cybersecurity must be much more than a technical policy. For an open democracy, it is a statement of principle that our politics and our commerce can be conducted freely. It has to reflect our cultural values as well as our interests. Banging on about foreign threats, after more than a century in which none materialised, was, until recently, considered the preserve of the barmy. But if we haven’t yet caught up with them, times have fundamentally altered.

A hard Brexit and a hard border may well see the re-emergence of a domestic terrorist threat, in some guise. But the threat of invasion is now in the electronic ether. It is not primarily aimed at us. But we are a wide-open and vulnerable target in a convenient arena that is rich in targets and potent with consequences.

Brexit — itself poisoned with illegitimacy — leading through events to an eventual border poll, would be a proving-ground for malicious intervention. The aim to sow doubt, to leave a legacy of contention about the result, would leave an appalling legacy on this island. It would weaken Britain further by trapping it, as well as us, in the consequences. Once a competing economy, or system of government is in trouble, destabilised or distracted, the strategic purpose of cyberwar either electorally, or through industrial sabotage, is fulfilled. Not a single soldier has left the barracks, but mayhem is unleashed. Indeed, we are in it already.

Globally, the European Union is a major competitor economically for Russia and China. Politically it is a platform for the culture and the system of government which the Russians and Chinese governments fear. Authoritarian government has one ultimate disadvantage. It offers no pension plan. You can’t retire. A fleeting, mid to late–20th-century sense that liberal democracy would inevitably triumph has passed. Nothing is inevitable. Vladimir Putin in Germany at the fall of the Berlin Wall, learnt the lesson well. The problem wasn’t authoritarianism, it was an insufficiency of it. The Chinese leaders have one preeminent bogey man and that is Mikhail Gorbachev. At Tiananmen Square, and perhaps yet in Hong Kong, appropriate lessons were applied. The niceties of netiquette, let alone notions of internal law won’t apply.

Electronically, Ireland is the Achilles heel of the European Union as well as a handy proxy for American interests. We are a country at a crossroads that too easily could become the crosshairs of a remotely orchestrated but destabilising conflict.

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