European Parliament and hacking – a long history


The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs' data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs’ data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The hacking of at least 40.000 European Parliament (EP) emails does not appear to be a singular event, but the latest in a series of worrying IT security breaches.

On Thursday, the French website Mediapart reported that an anonymous hacker had accessed confidential emails of MEPs and other staff of the European Parliament (EP).

The attacker described the hacking as “child’s play” saying he only used “ridiculous” computer equipment.

The Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser received a list with metadata of 40.000 emails from different institutions, including the European Parliament and the German Bundestag. According to Ehrenhauser, a connection between the list and the cyber attack is very likely.

The hacking sparked a discussion about how vulnerable the European Parliament is to cyber attacks.

MEPs criticised that the EP was using out-of-date software and did not allow its staff to encrypt their communication.

Security concerns not taken seriously

It is not the first time the EU’s IT services face claims of not doing enough to protect confidential data and communication.

In April 2011, the Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin reported to Klaus Welle, the EP General Secretary, that his private emails were accessed from another office within the European parliament.

The European Parliament has not reacted to his report down to the present day, Martin says.

In another case, Heiko Frenzel, author of Sicherheit-Online (security online), wrote in October 2011 that he had contacted the European Commission (EC) to inform them about 40 security loopholes on EU servers.

“The first ten hints, which were sent over a period of time, were simply ignored, some of them deleted unread,” Frenzel said.

According to Frenzel, it took the European institution almost one year, until September 2012, to deal with the breaches.

European Parliament should improve its IT services

EU leaders are pushing forward new legislation to protect citizens’ data amid continuous revelations about the NSA’s spying activities in Europe.

If the EP wants to be taken as a serious negotiating party in cyber security issues, it should, first of all, aim at improving its own IT services and making it impossible for hackers to access confidential data with elementary computer equipment.

European Parliament hacked – attacker describes stealing 40.000 emails as “child’s play”

European Parliament in Strasbourg

Vulnerabilty of EP computers has been know for years, MEPs say (CC United Nations Photo)

A hacker has accessed 40.000 emails of MEPs and other staff of the European Parliament (EP), triggering a discussion about how vulnerable the parliament’s IT systems are to simple cyber attacks.

The hacker told the French website Mediapart yesterday that he succeeded in breaching the EP’s security using elementary computer equipment and “a few bits of knowledge that everyone is capable of finding on the Internet”.

He said his operation was aimed at raising awareness of how vulnerable the EP’s computer systems are to simple cyber attacks.

Today Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser received a USB key with metadata of 40.000 emails, including the subject line, date, sender, recipient and the file name of attachments, Spiegel Online reports.

According to the report, the list does not only contain emails from staff of the European Parliament, but also the European Commission, the German Bundestag, parties and lobby groups.

Although a connection between the file and the cyber attack has yet to be established, Ehrenhauser considers it very likely that the two events relate to one another.

Out-of-date software made communication vulnerable

The breach of the EP’s protection measures, which the hacker described as a “child’s play”, has started a discussion about the parliament’s IT security.

Dutch MEP Sophia in’t Veld said that problems with the EP’s computer systems had been known for years.

Marjory Van den Broeke, the head of the EP press unit, said the IT services were investigating how the attack could happen: “It’s a technical issue, depending on the outcome of the investigation, we’ll see if and what measures should be taken.

According to Spiegel Online, the IT systems in the European Parliament are using old software, with some of the computers running the 12-year old Windows XP.

Jan Phillip Albrecht, MEP and data protection expert, said the EP was using software without knowing if back doors were built in. “We have been campaigning to use open source software for ten years”, he said.

The EP’s IT services forbid MEPs to encrypt their emails, Spiegel Online reports.

While investigating NSA spying activities, the hacking attack shows how vulnerable the EP is not only to big intelligence services, but also to a single hacker sitting outside the parliament building in Strasbourg.

EU leaders push for new data protection legislation amid NSA surveillance revelations

The NSA allegedly hacked Angela Merkel's phone (CC Arne List via Flickr)

The NSA allegedly hacked Angela Merkel’s phone (CC Arne List via Flickr)

European Union officials have demanded a speedy decision on a new data protection legislation at the European Council last week.

Data protection was originally not among the summit’s topics, but new revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) put it on the agenda. According to a report by The Guardian, the phones of 35 world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, were monitored by the US secret service.

The new data protection EU leaders talk about does not address phone hacking, but one of the NSA’s other disputed activities: the US secret service’s massive spying on EU citizens’ online communication.

The bill passed the Libe committee (civil liberties, justice and home affairs) of the European Parliament on 21 October 2013. In order for it to become law, the EU Council of Ministers and the EU Commission have to approve the regulation.

The proposed legislation would restrict Internet companies’ rights to use EU citizens’ private data without their consent. The firms would therefore have to ask for the users’ explicit consent.

The legislation would also raise the fines for Internet companies if they break any of the laws. The companies could be forced to pay up to five per cent of their annual worldwide turnover.

However, the regulation passed by the European Parliament last week contains several changes made to the original version. Most importantly it replaced the so-called “right to be forgotten” with the “right to erasure”.

This right could significantly strengthen EU citizens’ data protection. The original draft would force Internet companies to guarantee that disputed data could not be found anywhere on the Internet.

The new bill restricts citizens to the right to enquire about their saved data and ask for erasure from companies’ servers (see German magazine Spiegel).

Internet giants opposed the “right to be forgotten”. Peter Fleischer, head of Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, wrote in a blog post: “A hosting platform can and should delete copies of material that they store on behalf of a user upon his or her request, but it cannot be expected to maintain control over other copies of the material published elsewhere online, as these are outside of the control of the hosting platform.”

The current EU regulation on data protection was passed 18 years ago and does not reflect changes in the digital landscape. This has led to differences in the data protection legislation of each EU member state.

International Internet companies, such as Google or Facebook, use the different laws to their advantage by placing their European headquarters in Ireland, the country with the weakest data legislation. The new regulation is aimed at creating EU-wide standards.

The EU citizens’ use of the Internet illustrates the scope the new legislation would have. According to the European Union, around 380.000 of the 500.000 European citizens use the Internet. Almost three quarters of European households have Internet connection. Roughly half of the European Internet users are members of social networks.