Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition (2017).
I was speaking this week to the managing director of a small Irish software company who was just back from the states. He was telling me that he had been attending a technology conference where one speaker had announced that the Third World War was currently being waged. What had struck him, the Irish businessman told me, was that there was a murmur of agreement about the statement. That this was not a shocker to the delegates. It wasn’t even news.
Every day, across the world there are battles going on, between hackers, private companies, state players, criminals and terrorists, with the battlefield being the online systems that run modern life.
You say this to people of a certain vintage and there’s eye-rolling and some remark about watching too much James Bond. But consider that only last month NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre held a gathering in Talinn, Estonia, of nearly 600 experts in the field to discuss the securing of vital infrastructure from cyberattack. If NATO, the world’s preeminent defence organisation is taking the issue seriously, then it needs to be taken seriously by us too.
There’s still a feeling amongst many ordinary people that the threat is somehow otherworldly, something that doesn’t affect real life or if it does is of nuisance value more than anything else. But consider someone accessing air traffic control, or the national electricity grid, or wiping electronically stored medical files, or the ATM system. Picture having no food in the house for your children, and having no cash and your cards not working, things that seem minor until suddenly you can’t get diesel for your car or feed a hungry child.
What’s more worrying is the source of the threat. James Comey, the former director of the FBI, told the United States Congress last week that Russia did interfere by a variety of methods in the 2016 US presidential election. That’s one level. An active attempt to shut down, for example, our nation’s electrical grid would paralyse the country and possibly cost lives.
Then consider the culprits. The Russians? Of course? Terrorists? Possibly. But even more so, even, yes, private criminal enterprises with the power not just to commit identity theft or online banking fraud. But using ransomware on major corporate or national systems goes from being a heist to an attack on national infrastructure. Sounds far-fetched, but we’re not talking some guy sitting in an underground lair stroking a cat. We’re talking exceptionally bright hackers in an apartment somewhere, in Moscow, in Lisbon, in Bristol, in Oranmore with the power to inflict damage on vital systems as disruptive as if they’d bombed it.
In recent weeks we’ve talked about the possible need for an Irish intelligence service. It has been raised in the light of the Manchester and London attacks, but the threat spectrum is so much wider, and we need to consider do we have the capacity and the expertise to deal with threats to our national security and economic stability from Islamists to Russian aggression to freelance operators.
Our traditional response, that sure aren’t we grand lads altogether and sure why would anyone have a beef with us is complacent and ends the day a half dozen bodies lie bleeding in the street outside a US multinational, or a commercial drone bought for a grand explodes a homemade IED with ball bearings over Croke Park during the All-Ireland. We are goalkeepers, and they are strikers. We have to be lucky always, they only have to be lucky once.
The old Irish neutrality works on the basis that all players are rational nation states, and no one would be interested in us. That’s no longer true. A future referendum in Ireland on an EU treaty would be of huge interest to the Putin regime who regard weakening the EU as a policy objective. Of course they’d interfere in our campaign. Putting the Putin regime aside, as with so many things in the age of globalisation, even terrorism has been outsourced and made cheaper and accessible to all. The fear of losing all your laptop files is terrorism, albeit at a nuisance level. Shutting down the approach lights to Dublin Airport is a different scale. The difference is that the latter no longer needs a nation state’s resources to carry out. Look at the recent terror attacks: they’re more the act of a terrorist franchise than part of a wide and coordinated conspiracy.
If you believe that traditional neutrality will keep us safe from those attacks, you are mistaken, because many of these attacks may not even be ideological but pure and simple criminal extortion: give us X or Y happens.
We have a fetish in Ireland about military neutrality, and it seems to come in two forms. The first is the sheer terror that we’ll be conscripted to fight in someone else’s reckless foreign adventure, something which doesn’t just happen unless the national political system wants it to happen. The French and Germans, key members of NATO, refused to send troops to engage in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and guess what? Nothing happened to them. Bottom line is that the only people who decide where Irish troops go are the Irish.
The second fetish is about spending money on military equipment. This is by far the more surreal view, mixed in with a weird analysis that we would never apply to any other item of public expenditure. Ask the Irish to spend taxes on an MRI machine, they’ll have no problem, even if we don’t need it. It could sit unused for weeks at a time in the corner of a regional hospital, a hulking totem to what a compassionate people we are. But spend money on tanks or God forbid armed aircraft and it’s the foreign policy equivalent of saying “Candyman” five times into a mirror.
Having said that, spending money on national security, from terrorism to infrastructure security from cyber-attack is something an Irish government could justify. Of course, we would have to go through the usual carry-on such as finding an Irish name for the agency that nobody will remember, a huge debate over the terms, conditions and pensions of its employees, another row over where the first director should be a guard or some ex FBI guy, and then finally the Healy-Raes will kick up blue bloody murder unless it’s based in Kerry.
Yes, we’ll go through all that rigmarole, but here’s the big deal. Such is the task of monitoring and acting quickly on intelligence against threats that we’re going to need help from whomever is the best at this, and that means the Americans, the Brits, the French, the Germans, NATO, basically all the people we say we have nothing to do with because we’re neutral. We need the National Security Agency and GCHQ to be listening in to our phones and reading our messages and teaching us how to do it. We’ll need our own well-staffed and equipped GCHQ.
See, that’s the issue. There is no neutrality anymore, at least, not as we know it. We are under attack now. The HSE was attacked two weeks ago. We are a target rich environment as an EU member, the backdoor to the UK and a major recipient of US investment.
It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. We need to start spending the money.
If we succeed the public will probably never know. But if we fail it’s all we will ever talk about.