Digital evidence sector shows growth in Ireland

25 Feb 2014

Following the leak of classified documents concerning the US National Security Agency, and, in Ireland, questions about the bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s offices, trying to keep data secure in an office looks less like a firewall and more like the story of the boy with his finger in the dike.

With more than 1bn people worldwide now owning a smartphone, according to the International Data Corporation, what information remains company property and what can be taken by an employee to work from home has blurred. This can leave employers unaware they might be unwittingly allowing sensitive information to be accessed by unauthorised personnel.

To give companies protection and to keep track of all digital activity, a whole new sector of digital evidence operations has developed to better secure companies’ data.

One such Irish company is Cernam, which has been purchased by Irish-American biotech company Daybreak. Daybreak intends to place Cernam’s Dublin-based team at the forefront of the digital evidence and investigations sector, estimated to be worth in the region of $1.4bn, according to Daybreak.

Founded in 2008 by Owen O’Connor, Cernam as a company dealing in digital evidence arrived at a time of flux in data security, when data leaks occurred through easily monitored company services or devices, such as sending sensitive information through email or downloading it onto laptops or flash drives.

Now it is much more complicated. As O’Connor said, the growth of personal devices means that unless action is being taken to trace where information is going, companies and organisations are going to be left wide open to security risks.

“What we were finding was that the technologies and tools that were being needed didn’t exist,” O’Connor said. “Even at that relatively early stage, there was a gap. We had the processes and technologies to deal with PCs, file servers and email servers, but when you came to dealing with a cloud server message board, these tools didn’t exist.”

Data security in Ireland

As it stands, corporate data security in Ireland is considerably poor, with a significant amount of employees, largely unknowingly, taking part in data breaches on a regular basis.

In a recent study of 256 Irish companies by the Irish Computer Society (ICS), 51pc of those surveyed had recorded data breaches in a 12-month period. Of this, 51pc of companies found 77pc of the recorded breaches came from employees, with 40pc of IT staff receiving little to no data-protection training.

Most of the blame for data leaks now appears to be placed firmly on the growth of cloud servers companies use as a better alternative to company-based servers.

In the past, an employee leaving a company could simply hand over his or her laptop, flash drives or CDs and be done with them. Now a person’s smartphone may be linked to a number of email and cloud services, long after he or she has ended a working relationship with a company.

In a sector like biotechnology and information technology (IT), where claims of data leaks and litigations regarding patents and copyright are a regular occurrence, Daybreak’s decision to acquire Cernam can come as no surprise.

An Irish-led company headquartered in Dublin but making significant headway in its American office in Silicon Valley, California, Daybreak has begun to expand its IT services in biotech since it was established in 2013 by Kevin Barrett, formerly of Irish pharmaceutical company Élan.

Along with Paddy Roberts, chief operating officer at Daybreak, the company had been working with Cernam since the beginning and its acquisition is part of Daybreak’s long-term goal of letting Cernam’s digital security products expand in the global market.

One such product released by Cernam is ‘Watson’. Online businesses can use the free tool to address what Cernam calls the ‘blind spots’ of a company’s digital cloud network and whether there could potentially be any legal ramifications from the release of data, and, more specifically, who released the data.

According to Roberts, the acquisition of Cernam is just a starting point in a development plan to expand in this relatively niche sector.

“We are already investing and plan to make further investments into those products,” said Roberts. “In terms of the potential gains, we see them as significant. The particular tools we have that are focused around cloud are in a niche area, where demand will grow in the coming months and years.”

Potential of e-discovery market

IT research company Gartner has looked into this demand and it estimates the digital evidence and e-discovery market will be worth $2.9bn by 2017.

Last July, Daybreak announced it was to create 50 new jobs in its Dublin branch and, according to Kevin Barrett, CEO of Daybreak, more information on 12 of these jobs will be revealed within a matter of days.

As part of the acquisition of Cernam, O’Connor is now Daybreak’s vice-president. His role involves overseeing the development of Cernam’s products under Daybreak, and the Cernam’s involvement in the biotech sector has come at the right time.

“The base customer problems are increasing both in biotech and more broadly, the emphasis on digital evidence or in litigation is increasing all the time,” said O’Connor.

“Even something like the British Petroleum (BP) text message case throws a various stark light on this area. It’s a good time for Daybreak to be coming into this area. The complexity and range of technologies that companies have is far greater than it was a couple of years ago and it’s only going to increase.”

The BP case O’Connor referred to is probably one of the highest-profile digital evidence cases in the last two years. Following the BP oil disaster in 2010 that saw millions of gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the company’s engineers was found to have deleted a series of text messages between himself and a BP supervisor which was to be used as evidence, later discovered by digital forensic investigators.

So what is it that Ireland has that makes it so attractive as a potential world leader in digital evidence and e-discovery in the corporate sector?

“With regard to our view, we find the Irish education system with forensics and, in general, the IT space has well-educated individuals who are hungry to grow and become better,” Roberts said. “In the forensic space, there are a number of colleges and universities that have put together quite good academic, industry-focused programmes where graduates are able to hit the ground running.”

Digital forensics and evidence courses in Ireland

In Ireland, the three leading digital forensics and evidence courses are in University College Dublin (UCD), Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LIT).

Both O’Connor and Roberts agree these institutes are providing a steady stream of highly skilled graduates who can go straight into working with them, as opposed to simply having a computer science or IT background.

Many of these new graduates who will be taking on the roles in Daybreak will have a direct link with its US operations, where Roberts and Barrett are based.

The importance of having a direct link between Silicon Valley and the growing digital evidence sector in Ireland is seen as an important part of Daybreak’s future in Ireland.

“We have a good handle of the market out there (Ireland) and what can be a good handle on the market here, and the opportunities that the west coast can offer might be constrained or don’t have the visibility into the market that we have (in Ireland),” said Roberts.

“It’s a win-win for Daybreak and there are other opportunities that we are focusing on to use the gateway that we feel is here for the biotech industry that we can take into the Daybreak fold and in a cost-effective way.”

Roberts said the biotech sector has been “recession-proof” these last number of years, and will increase in venture capital funding in the coming years.

As the biotech sector grows and more companies invest in Ireland, such as US drug maker Perrigo’s acquisition of Élan for €6.3bn last year, the increasing need for stronger corporate digital security and the accompanying software will be provided by companies like Daybreak, riding the crest of a new digital wave for Ireland.

E-discovery image via Shutterstock

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 23 February

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic