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Cyber threats are one of the top security concerns for nine out of 10 European Union citizens, according to Julian King, European commissioner for security union.
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“In an internet-connected age that is becoming ever more dependent on internet-connected technologies, we have become more vulnerable to those who are ready to exploit those technologies to try and do us harm for financial or political motives,” he told the CyberSec European Cybersecurity Forum in Krakow, Poland.
King, who has previously served as the UK ambassador to France, said that while the digital age brings “huge opportunities”, it also brings risk.
But he said these risks are becoming increasingly widely understood, particularly because of events such as the WannaCry and NotPetya attacks in May and June 2017, which affected hundreds of thousands of individuals and organisations in more than 150 countries and naturally serve as a “wake-up call”.
According to the latest Europol report on internet organised crime, King said the barriers to committing cyber attacks are “woefully low”, with little chance of getting caught, mainly because of the availability of a “vast range” of cyber criminal tools and services on the dark net, with some attacks costing as little as $5.
“For criminals, non-state and state actors, life has never been so easy,” he said, “with an arsenal that includes ransomware, phishing tools, Trojans, distributed denial of service [DDoS] attacks, botnets and identity theft services.”
In 2016, said King, European citizens were the subject of two billion data breaches, and every month, one in five industrial computers was attacked. Since 2016, more than 4,000 ransomware attacks have taken place every day across the EU – a 300% increase on 2015, he said.
Aviation systems face an average of 1,000 cyber attacks a month, and card-not-present fraud is currently worth about €1bn a year in the Eurozone alone.
‘Tackle this scourge’
“If we were talking about a public health issue, then we would be using the word ‘pandemic’ to describe the scale of the challenge,” said King, “so I think it is time to shift our efforts to tackle this scourge, which is precisely what the European Commission, with the other institutions and the member states, wants to do.
“We want to strengthen resilience, build effective deterrents and create durable cyber defence.”
King pointed out that this work has been going on for some time, and that the European Union has had a cyber security strategy since 2013.
“The Network and Information System [NIS] directive, agreed in 2016, built on that and will require [operators of] essential systems to assess risk, prepare a strategy, put in place protections, develop capabilities and competence, educate staff and the public, and share information about threats and incidents,” he said.
The challenge is that the threat itself does not stand still, said King. “It continues to change and evolve, both in its nature and in terms of the expanding attack surface that we are seeking to protect and manage, with homes, hospitals, governments, electricity grids and cars becoming increasingly connected.”
‘Offline’ lives affected
Another important fact to acknowledge, said King, is that cyber attacks are increasingly affecting people’s “offline” lives, such as the power outages in Ukraine caused by cyber attacks. He noted that, according to Symantec, the Dragonfly hacking group potentially still has the capacity to control or sabotage European energy systems.
“The internet of things [IoT] means that tens of billions more devices will go online, and in 2016, the Mirai malware attack highlighted IoT vulnerability, with hundreds of thousands of normal devices infected and turned into the world’s biggest botnet,” he said.
The internet was designed and built on trust, said King. “Our challenge today is to retro-engineer security and security awareness into the system,” he said, noting that “too often” in the rush to get new devices to market, manufacturers “forget” security or do not give it enough importance.
“That means devices never lose their easy-to-guess default passwords; it means the update policy is unclear; it means encryption not being used; and it means unnecessary ports, hardware, services and code that make the attack surface larger than it needs to be,” he said.
According to King, all these things are “relatively straightforward” to sort out, but when they are attacked cumulatively, it has “deeply troubling implications for our collective digital security and, as a result, cyber threats are becoming more strategic, especially with the ability to endanger critical infrastructure, and they are becoming more ‘endemic’ – spreading from IT networks to the business-critical operations of other economic sectors”.
A few days after the recent State of the Union speech by European Commission president Jean Claude Junker underlining the importance of tackling cyber threats, King said the EC had presented a package of proposals intended to reinforce a collective response based on resilience, deterrence and defence.
“In all of these areas, we need to strengthen co-operation and we need to focus on international governance and international co-operation,” said King. “We urgently need to become more resilient. We need to make ourselves harder to attack, and we need to be quicker to respond.”
To that end, he said, the EC is proposing an EU cyber security agency based on the existing Enisa network and information security agency to help drive up cyber security standards and ensure a rapid and co-ordinated response to attacks across the whole of the EU.
Member states also need to fully implement the NIS directive, said King, to extend beyond critical sectors to other sectors at risk, starting with public administration, and to resource their computer incident response teams properly.
“To further reinforce these efforts, the new cyber security agency will also implement an EU standards certification framework to drive up the level of cyber security by ensuring that products on the market are sufficiently cyber resilient,” he said.
“We need to move to a world in which there are no default passwords on internet-connected devices, where all companies providing internet services and devices adhere to a vulnerability disclosure policy, and where connected devices and software are updatable for their entire lifespan.”
Standards certification framework
King said the new standards certification framework should promote new EU-wide schemes and procedures and create a comprehensive set of rules, requirements and standards to evaluate how secure digital products and services actually are.
“But, given that 95% of attacks involve some human interaction with technology, building resilience also means changing behaviours to improve cyber hygiene…and having the right skills to drive technological innovation to stay ahead of attackers,” he said, pointing out that Europe is projected to have 350,000 unfilled cyber security jobs by 2022.
“We need to mainstream cyber security education and training programmes and we need to invest in innovation,” said King.
As well as improving resilience, he said, there is a need to create real and credible disincentives for attackers. “We need to make attacks easier to detect, trace, investigate and punish,” he said. But attribution is often difficult, said King, and for this reason, the EC is seeking to promote the uptake of Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6).
“Under IPv6, you will only be able to allocate a single user per IP address,” he said, adding that the EC is also seeking to increase cooperation and sharing of cyber expertise and reinforcing forensic capabilities across the EU and within Europol “so that law enforcement can keep pace with criminals”.
Strengthen cyber defence
When it comes to defence, said King, the EC plans to explore whether the new EU Defence Fund could help to develop and strengthen cyber defence capabilities.
“We want to team up with our partners, and the EU will deepen co-operation with Nato on cyber security, hybrid threats and cyber defence,” he said. “It is in our common interest.”
Finally, King said that while the internet offers “enormous opportunities” for citizens, governments and international organisations, it also offers “unprecedented opportunities” for criminals, terrorists and other hostile actors.
“We need to be alive to this risk, and we need to take steps together to counter these threats because by working together, we can boost resilience, drive technological innovation, increase deterrents, and harness international co-operation to promote our collective security,” he concluded.