Thursday, 10 September 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality when funding will be made available to An Garda Síochána to set up regional cybercrime units that have been planned since 2016; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23204/20]
Will the Minister for Justice tell us when funding will be made available to the Garda Síochána to set up the regional cybercrime units that have been planned since 2016? Will she make a statement on the matter and bring clarity to this issue?
At the outset, it is important to emphasise that the Garda Commissioner and his team are responsible for the operation and management of An Garda Síochána and the distribution of resources within that organisation. As Minister for Justice, it is important that I work with the Garda Commissioner and ensure that he can fulfil what it is he sets out to do. This includes the establishment of new units and structures. As Minister, however, I have no direct role in these matters.
I refer specifically to the Garda national cybercrime bureau, GNCB, which is involved in tackling cyber-enabled crimes in collaboration with other Garda units such as the Garda national economic crime bureau, GNECB. The GNCB is part of the special crime operations section of An Garda Síochána and its members undergo intensive training in the area of forensic computing and cybercrime investigations. The bureau's remit also includes providing information on current cybercrime trends and online crime prevention advice, while at the same time operating as the Garda cybercrime and computer forensics liaison with partners including academic institutions, Europol, Interpol, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
It is important to note while we are moving to set up these particular units that every Garda district at the moment has a number of personnel trained in the use of digital forensic toolsets for the examination of any physical device seized or surrendered during the course of such investigations. However, when required, assistance will be provided to members of the Garda Síochána during the course of an investigation by the cybercrime bureau which has examiners trained in the use of forensic examination software, computer forensics and fundamentals up to master's degree level, in addition to receiving peer reviewed practical training. This is already underway but, obviously, much more was planned.
With regard to the roll-out of the new regional cybercrime units, I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána has the necessary funding to set up these units. I confirm that in line with the normal sanctioning process that must take place, in particular, when we are talking about any ICT investment, whether it is for public or private service, there must be a particular process it goes through. There have been extensive consultations between my Department and An Garda Síochána on this matter. I understand the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is currently considering the sanction request for the procurement of a managed service to facilitate the roll-out of the new regional cybercrime units and I expect a decision in the near future.
The issue here is that the gardaí and the Commissioner have made it clear they need these units now. There has been criticism for many years through the Courts Service and indeed many judges have criticised the huge delays and shortage of resources and staff in regard to this. This is really at the core of this. The main issue at stake here is child sex abuse imagery and how that can be tackled, which is a growing problem not just in Ireland, but across the world. It is something most people hope that we would be up to speed on as a modern economy and society. Online fraud, child exploitation and grooming, sexual abuse and rape must all be dealt with by having proper systems in place.
I understand the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, looked for the funding in 2016, which I believe is when it was first mooted to be required. The funding was applied for and was actually first sought from the Minister's Department in March 2019. A good article appeared in the Irish Examinerregarding this which stated the digital Government oversight unit received a business case from the Department of Justice and Equality in August 2020. What happened in those 15 months? Why could there not have been any movement on this?
I will outline here that funding is not an issue. I am satisfied the Commissioner will and does have the funding he needs. However, when one is rolling out any type of arrangements for digital or ICT-related expenditure, whether it is within the public or civil service, and An Garda Síochána obviously falls within that, a particular process must be undergone with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to approve the application of this.
In this specific case, the sanction required was to proceed with the procurement of a managed service solution for the Garda national cybercrime bureau and, again, I confirm my Department has engaged with An Garda Síochána to satisfy itself on a number of matters. The business case was subsequently forwarded to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for the final sanctions. I am satisfied the funding is available and will be there for the progression of this. There is, however, a particular process that must be gone through, in particular on the issues Deputy Kenny mentioned around child pornography and the fact we have seen a massive increase in online crime throughout Covid-19, for obvious reasons. Many people are at home and on their computers but, particularly, older people perhaps are using their computers where they have not before. I am aware of this issue and my challenge now is to move it on as quickly as possible.
We are on the same page. However, I do not understand, and what the public does not understand when it looks on, is that when An Garda Síochána or any other body needs money for something vital and applies for it, that can take years to be processed. The Minister said, of course, that all kinds of systems must be gone through and there must be due diligence. We know that. It would be useful, however, if the Minister could outline the timescale around when An Garda Síochána applies to the Department for funding for a particular project like this. How long can it expect to wait before it receives sanction and gets the funding to provide the service? Is the Minister talking about three years or three months? It would be much more appropriate if it was three months in the context of what we need to get done here because this is a serious issue. The Commissioner outlined it in his recent reports to the policing authority. It is something that has been through the courts for years now.
They are now complaining they cannot get the level of service they require in all this. Yet we find that when an application that makes common sense and that everyone agrees with goes to the Department, it is kicked from one party to the other over and back and nothing happens for years. It is no longer acceptable. It would be useful if the Minister, as a new Minister, put something in place to speed this up.
I understand the frustration and I cannot give the Deputy an exact timeline as to when exactly a Department or An Garda Síochána seeking initial funding for a project of this scale will receive approval. However, all ICT expenditure must meet particular criteria and a specific approval process must be followed. I can look at that approval process and see if it is unduly long or challenging, but a number of areas need to be looked at. This project will cost €13.8 million which is not small money. At the same time, it will be extremely valuable for the many areas the Deputy and I have both mentioned, considering the increase in cybercrime in recent weeks.
Modernising and developing our ICT infrastructure, not just within An Garda Síochána but also within the Department, the visa processing system and the courts system, is an absolute priority for me. If there are delays through this process or otherwise, I will certainly look at the issue. I am confident that this will be progressed as quickly as possible.