Cyber attacks and fake news 'pose risk' to elections, report warns
Irish elections are exposed to interference through cyber attacks and the spread of disinformation or fake news, a high-level government report has found.
The unpublished report found that social media websites and online search engines were most at risk of being used to influence the outcome of the country's elections.
The report recommends that the Government "expedite" setting up a long-promised Electoral Commission which would be responsible for monitoring votes for potential election interference.
The report, which was compiled by the Interdepartmental Group on the Security of Ireland's Electoral Process and Disinformation, also calls for the regulation of online political advertising and the modernisation of the electoral register.
It also says the National Cyber Security Centre should offer professional advice to politicians before elections.
"Overall, the assessment finds that risks to the electoral process in Ireland are relatively low, taking into account factors already in place," the report states.
"It is recognised, however, that the spread of disinformation and the risk of cyber attacks on the electoral system pose more substantial risks."
The report said this mirrored the experience of other EU member states where election interference had been investigated.
The expert group, which is led by the Department of Taoiseach, consulted with a wide range of officials and examined the experience of governments in other countries before drafting its report.
The report found there was a low-level risk of election interference when votes were being counted. There is also a low-level risk of elections being adversely impacted through either broadcast or print media.
The group was established following the publication of Fianna Fail TD for Kildare North James Lawless's Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill last year.
The bill aims to introduce new laws which would prevent organisations in other countries from paying for online political advertising in Ireland. The legislation also includes measures which would make it a crime to use online 'bots' or fake social media accounts to interfere with elections.
Those found guilty of the crime could be fined up to €10,000 or imprisoned for five years.
The bill would also make it a criminal offence to knowingly spread fake news online.
Mr Lawless previously said it was important to "move swiftly" to ensure social media was not taken advantage of to manipulate or interfere with Irish elections.
"There is growing evidence which shows that manipulation is under way by various State actors aimed at undermining the democratic process," he said.
"It's important that we do all we can to protect the integrity of our democratic process here in Ireland."
During a debate in the Dail on the Bill, Mr Lawless said: "The proposed measures are ideologically neutral.
"They apply equally to the left and to the right. Transparency takes no sides in electoral contests.
"It merely requires a standard of disclosure so that we know those who seek to influence our electoral outcomes are who they claim to be."