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27th Sep 2021

Brussels tightens cybersecurity rules days after attack

  • The policy deems 10 sectors as 'essential infrastructure' - energy, transport, banking, financial market infrastructures, health, drinking water, wastewater, digital infrastructure, public administration and space (Photo: The Preiser Project)

The European Commission announced on Wednesday (16 December) a reform of the bloc's cybersecurity rules - just days after the European Medicine Agency was subjected to a cyberattack connected to its evaluation of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine.

"The time of innocence is over. We know that we are a prime target," said commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas.

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"There are many state and non-state actors that simply want to see Europe fail and many key competitors that use this avenue to explore our vulnerabilities and succeed obtaining a competitive advantage," he added, warning that cyberattacks against the bloc's critical infrastructure increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The EU last year recorded 450 cybersecurity incidents involving European critical infrastructure like finance and energy, while the pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation of work and exposed new security weaknesses.

European companies are seen as less well-prepared in cybersecurity than firms in Asia and America.

Meanwhile, the cost of cybercrime to the global economy during this year is estimated to be €5.5 trillion - double 2015's figure.

The commission proposal, which builds on the 2016 EU cybersecurity law (NIS), focuses on protecting the essential infrastructure of medium or large companies and public bodies operating in 10 sectors - energy, transport, banking, financial market infrastructures, health, drinking water, wastewater, digital infrastructure, public administration and space.

Also deemed important entities are: postal and courier services, waste management, chemicals, food manufacturing, medical devices, computers and electronics, machinery equipment, motor vehicles, and digital providers such as online market places, online search engines, and social networking service platforms.

Additionally, smaller players could also fall under the scope of the rules - if they have a high-security risk profile.

Elections not included

While EU officials acknowledge the use of political cyberattacks, the reform falls short of including election administration among its priorities.

The plans also include an "EU-wide Cyber Shield" which would connect operations of national authorities and EU-level security centres, using artificial intelligence to detect early signs of attacks, and scaling up cooperation between countries and organisations like Nato.

Nato has seen "more frequent and more sophisticated cyberattacks" and "established cyber as a military domain, alongside air, land and sea," Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.

Under the new rules, all these essential entities will be required to notify cyberattacks, within 24 hours of being made aware, to the relevant national authority.

The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity would compile and keep track of these incidents in monthly reports.

Companies that failed to comply with the rules can face a range of sanctions, which include fines from €10m to two percent of their global annual revenue.

"In a case where a company continues not to fulfil its obligations, in this category, we can go up to suspension of authorisation. That is the last resort. [But] we may also have temporary bans against any persons discharging managerial responsibility," said EU commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton.

Brussels also wants to reinforce the sanction system, with a proposal for member states to agree on sanctions by a qualified majority, instead of unanimity - a sensitive subject for EU countries.

Brussels imposed this year the first-ever cyberattacks-related sanctions on people and organisations linked to North Korea, China and Russia - including a travel ban and an asset freeze.

The proposal needs to be discussed and adopted by EU countries and MEPs before it can go into effect.

Once agreed upon, member states would then have to adopt and apply the new rules within 18 months.

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