New online benefits system will be targeted by hackers: cyber expert
A cyber security expert in Northern Ireland has warned that Universal Credit claimants will be "fresh meat to hackers" when the first phase of the new benefits arrangement rolls out next month.
Universal Credit will replace six common benefits and will be introduced on a phased basis over the course of a year from next month.
Claimants, regardless of age, will be required to use email and are encouraged to set up a Facebook account to attract employers.
In areas where broadband is poor they will have to attend communal 'digital zones' or fill in their personal welfare details on public library computers, in a move one Northern Ireland cyber expert said was extremely concerning.
Robert O'Brien, CEO of Londonderry-based global security software firm MetaCompliance, said that hackers will take advantage of the lack of online skills of some claimants.
"When the Inland Revenue digital system came online at the beginning, at certain times it became overwhelmed by the demands placed on it," he said. "Universal Credit will be the same. The day that everyone gets their benefits or has to claim there will just be a tidal wave of people trying to get online.
"If at the same time as a huge demand is placed on the service hackers were to perpetrate a 'denial of service' attack, and burden it further maliciously, then you could see that system becoming hugely painful.
"While that is an apocalyptic scenario, the reality is that 90% of computer scams start with an email. Now you have a section of the population using email to communicate with a Government body, some of whom would not be familiar with it.
"The system is going to be tortured by hackers using these emails as a way to get into their homes and start communicating with them.
"They are going to be like fresh meat for the hackers. These hacks are coming form very poor countries. Thirty pounds here and there, and taking it off thousands of people, that's what they are after."
The Department for Communities said support will be offered to claimants who cannot independently make or maintain a claim online, which will include telephone and face-to-face support where required. "Claimants will be required to have an email address to enable them to make and maintain their claim online," a spokesman said.
"Support will be available in the local office to help set up an email address if required.
"Claimants are encouraged to use social media to seek work and to help prepare for work, but access to specific social media accounts is not mandatory."
The spokesman said 35 offices will have a digital zone with PCs which claimants can use to access their online account.
Staff will be available to provide help and support and claimants could avail of free Wi-Fi to use their own devices in the front offices and services within Libraries NI.