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27th Feb 2024

EU responds to threat of 'zombie' computers

  • The Ignalina nuclear power station in Lithuania. Malmstrom said she does not want to 'terrify' people but noted that Stuxnet could be used to sabotage a nuclear plant (Photo: Wikipedia)

The EU's anti-cyber-crime agency Enisa will in future work with Europol to help track down hackers and the creation of botnets or "zombie computers" is to be made illegal under new proposals from the European Commission.

"I don't want you to walk out of here totally terrified, but just to give you an idea that there is a threat," home affairs commissioner Cecila Malmstrom said at a press briefing to launch the measures in the EU capital, Brussels, on Thursday (30 October).

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"To anyone thinking that cyber-attacks are an abstract concept, I would say that for millions of people each year there are already direct practical consequences. When your money is quietly stolen from your bank account or your country is shut down - as happened to Estonia in 2007 - the threat suddenly becomes very real," the EU's information society commissioner Neelie Kroes said at the same media event.

Citing internal alerts from British, French and Germany military intelligence, the commissioners highlighted the creation of two large-scale cyber weapons in the past two years as examples of the increasingly dangerous environment on the Internet.

The so-called Conficker botnet has since 2008 installed malicious software on an estimated 12 million personal computers worldwide turning them into "zombies" capable of collectively sending 10 billion spam emails a day without the owners' knowledge. The spam can be used to steal money, blackmail banks or other firms with the threat of a shutdown or to get hold of classified information. Conficker in January and February 2009 prevented French fighter planes from taking off and shut down British and German army websites.

The Stuxnet botnet is designed to take over the control systems of industrial plants, including nuclear installations, in order to sabotage operations. It has reportedly affected facilities in China and Iran prompting speculation on the involvement of Israeli and US secret services.

A former US National Security Agency officer, Charlie Miller, in an interview with EUobserver in August estimated that a hostile foreign power could, given just €86 million and a team of 750 spies and hackers, launch a devastating cyber strike on the EU.

In the Miller scenario, the EU 27 countries would wake up one day to find electricity power stations shut down; communication by phone and Internet disabled; air, rail and road transport impossible; stock exchanges and day-to-day bank transactions frozen; crucial data in government and financial institutions scrambled and military units at home and abroad cut off from central command or sent fake orders.

The Malmstrom-Kroes package envisages new powers for the EU's Crete-based European Network and Information Security Agency (Enisa) as well as new anti-cyber-crime legislation that could see people put in jail for years.

Ms Kroes wants Enisa to work with Europol (an EU organ based in The Hague which helps national police forces to share intelligence on organised crime) and Frontex (the EU's Warsaw-situated border security agency) in forensic operations to track down the people behind cyber attacks.

Enisa is also to set up an EU-wide "alert system" on the cyber attack threat level and a Computer Emergency Response Team inside the EU institutions. The agency's mandate was previously limited to research on the security of ecommerce.

The Malstrom draft directive, approved by the commission on Thursday, is to oblige EU countries to criminalise the creation of botnets and to collect and share cybercrime data. It will also oblige member states to punish cyber criminals and the "instigation, aiding, abetting and attempt" of cyber crimes with up to five years in prison.

Ms Kroes said she hopes the new measures will be in place by 2012 and reported that she is "rather hopeful" of success after "first contacts" with MEPs and member states, who will need to give the developments the green light.

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