Environment department accused of violating European law for not getting UK Air site, which provides live data on air quality, online since Islamist cyber-attack
The UK government has been accused of breaking European law after failing to get its air-quality website back online more than a month after a cyber-attack by Islamist hackers.
The UK Air site, part of the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), is supposed to provide live estimates of air quality across the country, including levels of particulate matter and other pollutants, as well as health advice.
But five weeks after the site was hacked by a group calling itself the Moroccan Islamic Union-Mail most of the site remains offline, with only a static “landing page” visible to visitors and none of its interactive features or downloadable data available.
The site’s users have complained that lack of access to the site, which usually carries detailed information on air-monitoring stations and current local levels of pollution, was hampering their work.
A spokesperson for Defra said that after UK Air was first hacked service was quickly restored, but that hackers had shortly afterwards seized control of the site again, forcing the department to shut it down until it could be secured.
Five weeks later the bulk of the site remains offline.
Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, which monitors pollution levels in the capital, said the failure to restore the service was a breach of European law.
“After more than five weeks offline, it’s becoming clear that Defra prefers hiding air-pollution publications and the entire national monitoring network than publishing information as required by European law,” Birkett said.
“Defra must be the only organisation in the western world that can’t or won’t get a website up and running again after five weeks. No wonder David Cameron has left [environment secretary] Liz Truss to stew in this mess.”
Leonard Gouzin, an air-quality consultant from Brighton, said he used the site on a daily basis and the disruption was affecting his work. “When we want to have some understanding of what the air quality is we go there, and it’s starting to be quite a problem,’ he said.
“It’s mostly maybe developers who get this data, and anybody who wants to get an idea of what the air quality is, anybody working in data, development or health.”
When the site was first hacked on the morning of 7 April, visitors were greeted with a large portrait of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein painted on a banner and draped across a building.
Beneath it, a message in broken English read: “It’s time to remind the British government what you did with Saddam Hussein will not forget. And we are ready to sacrifice with everything, as not to give up Iraq and stay alert for the coming…”
The hacked page included a link to an Arabic-language Facebook page for the Moroccan Islamic Union-Mail, a group which appears to style itself as an Islamist version of the Anonymous hackers’ collective.
The UK was part of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling Saddam after nearly 24 years in power. The UK’s role in the Iraq war has previously been cited as a justification for terrorist attacks and threats against British nationals.
The Guardian reported at the time that service to the site was restored shortly after, but according to Defra the site was soon hacked again and the same holding page placed at the URL.
A government spokesperson said: “In response to the hacking of Defra UK Air, we have taken the website offline as a precaution until we are sure that there is no further security risk.”
Defra could give no indication of when service might be restored, but the spokesperson insisted that the holding page was regularly updated with the latest air quality forecasts, pollution notifications and health advice.
The department would not comment on claims that the failure to publish detailed data was a breach of the law.
The Guardian contacted the site’s developers, Ricardo-AEA, for comment, but had received no reply at the time of publication.
Air pollution is expected to be low throughout Tuesday and the next four days and the public is advised to “enjoy your usual outdoor activities”.