Computer hacking poses problems for Irish government

The Irish government has found itself facing a delicate dilemma as it prepares to open up its economy after the costly coronavirus pandemic. The recent hacking of computers that run its health service, by Russian criminals, has not only left it exposed to ransom demands but potential legal actions from irate Irish people as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.

On the morning of Friday 14 May last, Irish people switched on their radio devices to learn that the IT system of the Health Service Executive (HSE), the body that runs the country’s hospital system, had been hacked over night!

Cyber criminals, believed to be the Wizard Spider gang in St. Petersburg Russia, had hacked in to personal files on the entire national computer system and were issuing a ransom demand of €20 million to unlock codes!

At first the HSE played down the hack insisting that all files were copied in cloud computing storage, nothing had been stolen or compromised and that everything would be ok by Monday 17 May.

By Tuesday18 May, the crisis showed no signed of improving with the Government coming under attack from opposition politicians who themselves, were bombarded by worried constituents in the preceding days.

“This is escalating into a pretty serious national security crisis and I am not sure it is on the radar to the level it should be,” Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly told the Irish Parliament that day.

As the days rolled on, angry callers to radio phone-in programmes, some in tears, have been telling stories of cancelled radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions for stage 4 cancer treatment with some calling on the Government, in desperation, to pay the ransom and get the service back to normal as quick as possible.

The Irish Government has stood firm in the passing days since the hack emerged insisting it will not pay the ransom for fear it could leave itself exposed to future hacks and demands.

However, the hackers sent a decryption computer key or code to the Irish Government prior to the weekend beginning 21 May prompting concerns that a ransom had been paid.

“No payment has been paid in relation to it at all. Security personnel don’t know the exact reason why the key was offered back,” the Taoiseach Micheál Martin insisted when he spoke to reporters on Friday 21 May.

With time moving on, there are now growing expectations in Irish government circles that the hackers will publish sensitive personal details on the so-called dark web in the coming days.

These details could include information on individuals who may have HIV/AIDS, advanced cancer, child abuse cases where individuals have not been named in the courts or for example, sexually transmitted infections but have opted to retain such information between themselves and their respective doctors.

Vulnerable people with medical conditions that could affect their jobs, reputations, personal lives, longevity and life insurance policies, remain at risk!

With the Government facing possible legal actions if such confidential information is allowed to be published, it moved in the Dublin High Court last week to secure legal injunctions prohibiting Irish media outlets, websites and digital platforms from making such information known to the wider public!

Junior Finance Minister Micheal McGrath pleaded with people at the weekend not to co-operate with any individuals or correspondence seeking payments in return for online confidential medical information.

Speaking to This Week on RTE Radio, he said, “The threat that we’re facing here is real and the release of personal, confidential and sensitive data would be a despicable act but it is not one that we can rule out and the Gardaí [Irish police], working with our international law enforcement partners, are doing all that they can now to be in a position to respond to this.”

Ireland’s failure to honour its GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) commitments could also see it facing serious fines in the European Court depending on how this all pans out!

Meanwhile with numerous health procedures in hospitals delayed by the hacking attack, questions are being asked as to how secure all Irish State computers systems are?

Paul Reid, the CEO of the HSE which is already working 24/7 to deal with the COVID pandemic, moved at the weekend to assure the public that his team are doing all they can to address the problem.

He told the This Week radio programme that the cost of fixing the problems could run in to tens of millions of euro.

He said work is now under way on “assessing each of those national [IT] systems we want to restore, which ones we have to rebuild, which ones we may have to remove and certainly the decryption process helps us in that.”

He said good progress has been made “particularly in some of the national systems, like the imaging system which would support scans, MRIs and X-rays”.

The hacking issue in Ireland is likely to see the entire State IT system overhauled in the coming weeks and months to ensure no such penetration by eastern European criminals ever happens again.

However, the crisis in Ireland serves as a reminder to the other 26 countries in the European Union that as long as Russian criminals continue to be a menace to western democracies, any one of those States could be next, particularly those with nuclear capabilities or sensitive military plans!

In the meantime, government officials in Dublin are keeping their fingers crossed that the threat of published sensitive material appearing on the dark web in the coming days remains just that, namely a threat!


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