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MEPs criticised that the EP was using out-of-date software and did not allow its staff to encrypt their communication.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 Greens open online primary for Commission President candidates

EP elections wil be held in May 2014 (CC European Parliament)

EP elections wil be held in May 2014 (CC European Parliament)

The European Green Party has started its online primary election of candidates for President of the European Commission ahead of next year’s EU parliament elections – a process that could be distorted by the nature of online audiences.

In the Green primary election European citizens over the age of 16 can vote for one or two of four proposed politicians, who are then going to run as candidates for the President of the European Commission’s office in next year’s European Parliament (EP) election.

The four candidates the Greens have put forward for the primary election are José Bové from France, Monica Frassoni from Italy, Rebecca Harms and Ska Keller both from Germany.

The Greens are the first European party to put forward such a process. According to the party, it is aimed at giving EU citizens a direct say:

„We believe running the Green Primary will help reduce the gap between political institutions and the citizens. Increasing direct citizen involvement can bring European politics closer to the people.“

The flaw of online audiences

However, the unrepresentative online audience could distort the primary’s results.

According to a study, almost 50 per cent of European Internet users are younger than 35 years, a group that accounts for a much smaller percentage of the European population.

Moreover, citizens in some member states use the Internet a lot less than those in others.

The Internet is a convenient platform to reach a big audience, but the European Green Party cannot expect to get a representative result from its primary online election.

In my opinion, the European Greens’ primary can be a model for the future and open a public pan-European debate, with both regional and demographic Internet gaps hopefully closing in the future.

Revolution of the electoral process

Next year’s EP election (22-25 May) is the first one since the Lisbon Treaty, which asked for a stronger integration of European citizens as political actors.

The European Commission (EC) has recommended that the European parties decide on top candidates for the EC President, the highest executive power in the EU.

The EC’s recommendation was based on a survey that suggested that 62% of Europeans think having party candidates for Commission President and a single voting day would help increase dropping turnouts (I wrote about this earlier).

The European people’s party, the biggest party in the current EP, has yet to name a candidate. The second biggest party, the Party of European Socialists, announced last week that Martin Schulz is going to run for them.

The European Green Party’s online primary election runs till 28 January 2014.

Free LUX Prize film screenings could be a model to revive Europe’s culture

Cinema

Cinemas will show LUX
Prize films for free (CC Fernando de Sousa via Flickr)

The three finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX Film Prize are being shown for free in cinemas across the 28 EU member states. However, other cultural sectors like theatre, dance and concerts could really benefit from free performance initiatives, as more and more Europeans turn their back on those events.

According to the European Parliament (EP), the LUX Prize aims at raising public awareness for “major EU policy areas as immigration, integration, poverty and violence against women”.

The former vice-president of the EP, Stavros Lambrinidis, said that the film selection would also influenced lawmakers because passing laws was not „a cold process“.

Europeans can watch the finalists for free in cinemas across Europe and vote for their favourite.

The three finalists for this year are:

  • The Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix van Groeningen, Belgium, 2012): A love story of two very different characters who have to fight for their love when their daughter falls gravely ill.
  • Miele (Valeria Golino, Italy and France, 2013): Irene, the lead character in the film, secretly helps terminally-ill people to die in dignity, but a new “patient” challenges her believes.
  • The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, United Kingdom, 2013): Two boys growing up in an underprivileged town in Yorkshire start working for a local scrap-metal dealer after being excluded from school. Soon tensions develop among the three.

Other cultural events should also be free

The popularity of cinema explains why the EP sees the LUX Film Prize as a good possibility to reach a big number of Europeans. However, in my opinion, other cultural events should be awarded with similar free performances.

Europeans are turning their back on culture, with cinema being the only type of culture events more people attended in 2012 than in 2007, a European Commission study (PDF version) recently found.

According to the study, 52 per cent of the European citizens go to the cinema at least once a year, but only 35 per cent go two concerts (2 per cent less than 2007), 28 per cent to the theatre (four per cent less than 2007) and 18 per cent a dance performance or an opera (same as 2007).

The study identified money as one of the reasons why fewer Europeans attended cultural events.

Of course, free theatre or opera performances would be a lot more costly than free film screenings, but can the price to prevent Europeans from turning their backs on culture really be too high?

Are you going to any of the free LUX Prize screenings? Do you think the European Union should invest more money in theatre, dance and concerts?

Unemployment in Europe will stay high for years

The unemployment rate in the European Union will stay around 12 per cent until 2015, although the EU has reached an economic “turning point”, according to commissioner Olli Rehn.

In fact, the European Commission’s economic forecast, which was presented today, supports Rehn’s statement, predicting the eurozone’s GDP to grow by 1.1 per cent in 2014 and 1.7 per cent in 2015.

Europe’s jobless, however, will have to wait until the strengthening economy will affect them: The unemployment rate, currently just above 12 per cent, will drop slightly to 11.8 per cent by 2015.

“We are seeing clear signs of an economic turnaround but growth will pick up only gradually and will translate into jobs only with lag and that’s why we cannot yet declare victory and we must not fall into the trap of complacency”, Rehn said at the presentation of the newest forecast.

While Rehn focussed on the positive aspects of the economic recovery, experts are less convinced of the progress made. ING chief economist Carsten Brzeski told EUobserver that the commission forecasts “reflect the sad truth about the European recovery. It is a very slow, fragile and anaemic recovery.”

One glimmer of hope is that also crisis-struck countries like Greece and Spain are expected to grow their economies in the near future, even if a lot less than, for example, Germany (overview of forecasts for single EU member states).

Same toilet flush across Europe – “money down the pan”?

Not even toilets are safe from EU standards

Not even toilets are safe from EU standards

A limit of five litres for a toilet flush will be introduced for the European Union’s Ecolabel next week. Half-flushes will be limited to three litres and urinals to one litre, according to a draft for the bog standard.

Toilets in EU member states must meet the criteria in order to be awarded the Ecolabel. The European Commission gives the label to a range of environmentally friendly products.

The Commission said that the label was no standardisation for toilet flushes, as it would not force anyone to limit the water used on the loo.

“Ecolabels are NOT compulsory. This is not a Regulation, nobody will be asked or forced to install new toilets. The eco-label is entirely voluntary”, Joe Hennon, European Commission Spokesperson for Environment said.

A 63-page EU report (PDF version) suggests that the new limits could help to save up to 50% of the water depending on the type of toilet.

“Ecolabel criteria are beneficial both for the environment and our wallets. Ecolabel toilets will bring about water efficiency, lower water pollution and eutrophication, as well as cost savings to businesses and consumers in the form of lower water bills”, Hennon said.

UKIP politician: "

UKIP politician: Bog report is “money down the pan”

Euro-sceptics criticised the report on Europe’s toilets, which reportedly cost €84.000 (£72,000). Paul Nuttall from UK Independence Party (UKIP), called the study a ‘preposterous waster of money’.

‘Surely what goes on behind the bathroom door should be left to the people who are behind it. It is money down the pan’, he told the Daily Mail.

According to the EU report, people in the UK (1,125 million cubic metres of water in home toilets in 2010), Italy (1,074 cubic metres) and Germany (1,021 cubic metres) use the most water for flushing the toilet.

The „euro-flush“ controversy comes one week after European Commission President José Manuel Barroso promised to cut back on red tape and to avoid excessive EU bureaucracy.

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.

Why the European Union should suspend SWIFT data exchange with the US

NSA headquarters (CC Greg Goebel via Flickr)

NSA headquarters (CC Greg Goebel via Flickr)

The NSA uses the SWIFT data exchange to monitor international payments, the German Spiegel reported about one month ago. According to information from whistleblower Edward Snowden, a NSA division called “Follow The Money” collects EU information from EU citizens using SWIFT and transfers it to the NSA’s own database.

SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. The Belgian company provides banks with a standardised method for international transactions.

The EU and US agreed in 2010 that the NSA could use SWIFT’s transaction database under strict conditions in order to track terrorists. The documents provided by Snowden, however, suggest that the intelligence service made use of this on a way bigger scale than agreed.

Today, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution that calls for a suspension of the EU’s SWIFT data exchange with the US. The EP vote was rather close with 280 to 254 votes and 30 abstentions.

The resolution passed is non-binding, but “the Commission will have to act if Parliament withdraws its support for a particular agreement”, says the EP in the text.

However, the European Commission does not see any reason to act so far. It argues that the allegations have not been proven.

Why the European Commission should act

Following the NSA scandal, the European Commission’s position in this debate seems rather naive: NSA revelations have shown that the US intelligence service has used several ways to obtain private data from EU citizens. The SWIFT data exchange seems to be part of this strategy – a fact the NSA does not even vehemently deny.

Suspending the SWIFT data exchange as part of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program would not necessarily weaken efforts to combat international terrorism, like some conservative politicians say. Instead, it would send a clear signal that the fight against terrorism cannot be used as an excuse to spy on EU citizens.

EU free trade agreement with Canada – Q&A

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the agreement “highly ambitious and far-reaching“ and „of great importance for the EU’s economy“. What does the agreement mean for Europe? In this post I try to answer the most important questions about the deal:

What will the free trade agreement change?

The key elements of the trade agreement are aimed at eliminating duties between the two trade partners. This means that EU exporters will not have to pay tariffs anymore when selling goods on the Canadian market and vice versa.

Furthermore, the EU and Canada hope to encourage bilateral investment.

Who will profit?

The European Union and Canada claim that both countries will profit from free trade. The EU expects the agreement to increase bilateral trade by roughly €25 billion, which is just below one quarter of the current trade volume.

So everybody is happy?

Almost everybody. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper still has to deal with some interest groups that are not completely happy with the agreement – for instance, Canadian dairy farmers. Their concerns about negative economic effects were one of the reasons why the free trade negotiations took two years longer than originally planned. Concessions in the agricultural part of the agreement were made, but the Canadian provinces are yet to approve the deal.

Canadian cheese

CC verifex via Flickr

Escape from the ‘Brussels bubble’ – State of the EU blogosphere

By Cortega9 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

CC Cortega 9

The European blogging scene is dominated by EU politicians and people directly connected with the political scene in the Belgian capital. On his blog, political scientist Ronny Patz described this phenomenon as ‘Brussels bubble’. He states a lack of citizen journalist like they can be found in ‘normal capitals’.

Over the years, most European institutions have started blogging in one way or the other: The European Commission, for instance, brings together EU Commissioners’ personal blogs (e. g. Olli Rehn and Cecila Malmström) on a central website. The Library of the European Parliament discusses policy decisions on its blog.

Altogether, Bloggingportal.eu has counted 1116 blogs about the European Union (October 2013), including both official and citizen blogs. However, many of those are not updated regularly.

In a podcast, the Financial Times’ Brussels correspondent, Stanley Pignal, stated that the EU blogosphere limps after numerous blogs in many of its member states. He further claimed that many of the existing blogs are poorly written.

Although the podcast dates back to 2011, not much seems to have changed.

A list of good specialist blogs about EU policies can be found here.