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Europe under attack

May 31, 2012

Hackers and cyber criminals are seen as a growing threat to Europe's internet security. The EU has announced plans of a new cyber crime center, but experts say it's not enough.

Macro computer screen shot with binary code and password tex
Image: Fotolia/Pedro Nunes

Digital malware, like viruses, trojans and worms, can spread quickly and pose a danger to the nervous system of modern society - the Internet. And the more important the Internet becomes for people and the economy, the more professional, cyber attacks become. The time when viruses were programmed by students and computer nerds looking for a simple thrill is over.

Now, cyber crime is the realm of mafia-like gangs, which international cyber crime as more lucrative than other more traditional, risky forms of crime. They fish for online banking IDs and passwords, they hack into computers and smartphones, or hack profiles on social networks, like Facebook or Twitter.

A million victims a day

Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs
Malmström says fear is stopping us from enjoying a digital lifeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The international crime police organization, Interpol, says cyber crime causes about 750 billion euros ($929 billion) damage every year in Europe alone. The European Union estimates that one million of the bloc's citizens fall victim to cyber crime every day.

And it's not just the increasing economic loss that is causing concern, but also the social consequences.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, says the biggest danger is a feeling of insecurity that's limiting digital life out of a "fear of shopping online, a fear of joining social networks and our everyday internet usage."

Figures from the EU suggest that 73 percent of all EU households had internet access at the beginning of 2011. And 80 percent of young Europeans keep in touch via social networks.

The number of attacks has risen - even since the EU adopted its first guidelines on "attacks against information systems" in February 2005. The EU Commission is unsatisfied and has now announced plans for a "European Cybercrime Centre" in The Hague.

A total of 55 investigators from the commission and member states will join forces to try to stop cyber criminal activity. The center will have an annual budget of 3.6 billion euros. It will be part of the EU's criminal intelligence unit, Europol, and start operations in early 2013.

Internet expert, Jan Philipp Albrecht, says it's an important first step.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, German Greens party member and European Parliament representative
Albrecht says the Cyber crime Center will need more investigatorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Albrecht, who is a Greens party member and European Parliament representative, wants more investigators on site.

"Primarily, we need training at police stations in the member states of the European Union. And personnel - not just centralized at The Hague, but everywhere in Europe," said Albrecht.

Individual EU member states have authorities fighting cyber crime, but they differ in terms of budget and personnel. Often, they are unable to stop cross-border crime due to a lack of resources.

EU-wide coordination needed

Udo Helmbrecht, executive director of ENISA, the European Network and Information Security Agency, says there's demand for EU-wide coordination.

"It's certainly a challenge for Europe," says Helmbrecht. If something happens on the ground, such as credit card or data theft, then you need to react locally. But in order to proceed internationally, you need to coordinate."

Initial steps toward collaboration have been made.

In June 2011, with ENISA's support, IT security experts formed the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-EU). It helps to fight new viruses and warn of security lapses. In addition, ENISA is working on a new internet strategy for the EU Commission and performs internet security drills in Europe in a joint effort with American authorities.

"What's lacking is the link between the professional-technical and the political level," Helmbrecht says.

Udo Helmbrecht, executive director of the European Network and Information Security Agency
Helmbrecht says cyber crime is Europe's big challengeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

EU parliamentarian Jan Philipp Albrecht agrees there needs to be greater ties between the authorities.

But he warns that it won't be enough if authorities simply discuss new investigative measures and make "flamboyant announcements" or create "a centralized, bloated machinery."

The pressure to act - and act well - looks set to mount if developments in the US are anything to go by. Robert Mueller, director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation recently predicted that cyber attacks would soon overtake international terrorism as the world's biggest security threat. 

Author: Ralf Bosen /sst
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany