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MEPs criticised that the EP was using out-of-date software and did not allow its staff to encrypt their communication.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

Why Malala Yousafzai deserves the Sakharov human rights prize

Malala survived a Taliban assault

Malala Yousafzai during her speech (CC European Parliament)

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban, is worthy of the Sakharov Prize for human rights she was awarded with today.

She did not only keep on fighting for equal education, but human rights in general with her criticism of US drone strikes.

Malala’s life took a dramatic turn when a Taliban gunman stormed on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and shot her in the head in October 2012.

The then 15-year old girl survived the assault, but had to spend several months in hospitals after being transferred to Britain where she now lives with her family.

Malala had campaigned for equal education for Pakistani girls by, for instance, writing a blog about her situation for the BBC.

Today she was awarded with the prestigious Sakharov Prize in a ceremony at the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg.

“At only 16 years old, she is today the voice of millions of children and teens deprived from education”, said EP president Martin Schulz (full video of his speech).

Schulz said that since the assault one year ago Malala had become “a global icon” in her role as a campaigner and ambassador for equal education.

“I am hopeful the European Parliament will look beyond Europe to the suffering countries where people are still deprived of their basic rights, their freedom of thought is suppressed, freedom of speech is enchained,” Malala said at the Sakharov ceremony.

Malala’s full speech:

In my opinion she deserves the Sakharov Prize because she does not only fight for equal education, but human rights in general.

Although she told the BBC that she was enjoying her education in the UK, she did not shy away from criticising the Western powers because of their role in Pakistan: Most notably, she attacked US drone attacks on Pakistani soil in her book “I am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban”.

Since 1988, the Sakharov Prize is awarded each year to “exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression“ by the European Parliament. It is named after Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov.

Former winners of the Sakharov Prize include Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.

Lost in translation – the EU’s 24 official languages

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Can a sole EU official language end the translation chaos?

The EU’s 24 official languages make the legislation and administration in Brussels costly and slow, critics say. English or Esperanto as sole working language could be alternatives, but are feared to handicap non-native speakers.

This is a translation of my contribution for the 2013 Day of Multilingual blogging (see German version of this article).

The European Union’s language services translate EU regulations in all 24 official and working languages. MEPs can present their speeches in the European Parliament in any of these languages with simultaneous translation. Furthermore, citizens from all member states can contact EU institutions and receive an answer in these languages.

The huge amount of time and costs for translation has often been criticised as unproductive and unnecessary. Shada Islam from the think-tank Friends of Europe told PRI: “We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue.”

There are several alternative suggestions:

  • English as sole official language: This proposal seems to be a practical idea, but critics say that English-speaking nations would be favoured.
  • Several official languages: While this solution is widely considered fairer than English as sole official language, criticism from some EU member states would have to be expected. Moreover, the expenditure for administration and translation would be higher than with a single official language.
  • Esperanto as sole official language: The political movement Europe Democracy Esperanto campaigns for introducing the constructed international language Esperanto as sole EU working language. There are only few Esperanto speakers, with optimistic estimations speaking of two million people worldwide.

The key point of discussion is whether a single official language would infringe the EU motto “united in diversity”, which was created to ensure that the diversity of EU member states is thoroughly represented in the European Union.

Would the introduction of English as “lingua franca” end Europe’s cultural diversity? I am inclined to agree with Shada Islam:

„The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.”

The EU’s 24 official and working languages are: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.

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.

Europe’s young generation demands minimum wage for internships

Young Europeans propose measures to fight youth unemployment

Participants of Citizens’ Agora 2013 (© European Parliament)

Young citizens from across the European Union have put forward recommendations to tackle the record youth unemployment. Key proposals include control over a part of the youth unemployment budget, a minimum wage for internships and better recognition of volunteering.

Some 60 young people from different member states came together in Brussels for the Citizens’ Agora 2013, an event hosted by the European Parliament, and decided on several measures (PDF version) to battle youth unemployment.

Although I doubt that a meeting organised by EU authorities can really help Europe’s youth to find a common voice, some of the proposals are definitely interesting:

  • a minimum pay for internships
  • professional guidance and a mentor free of charge
  • mutual recognition of qualifications across all member states (including skills from volunteering)
  • a European-wide, free of charge, language learning system
  • a EU platform providing information about career and training opportunities
  • involve young people in the decision-making process and give them control over a small part of the Youth Employment Initiative budget

The heads of the member states will have to prove if they take the young generation’s proposals serious at the conference on youth unemployment in Paris on 12 November.

In any case, a meeting like this can only be a first step in a discussion about European youth unemployment. I consider it essential that young people are allowed to take part in these discussions because they should have a right to decide on their future. However, young people have yet to prove that they can play a constructive role in policy-making and not only demonstrate on the streets.

Youth unemployment in the European Union is now at a record-high of just above 23 per cent, according to Eurostat figures. In the crisis hit countries Greece and Spain over half of the under 25s are without a job, while only Germany and Austria have youth unemployment rates under 10 per cent.

Video about the Citizens’ Agora (by the European Parliament):

Here are some statements by young Europeans who took part in Citizens’ Agora:

Ricardo Rosas, 22, employed, from Spain: “I think that the EU should push member states to put in place concrete measures for young people who have just finished university and lack work experience.”

Jan Verlaak, 24, employed, from Belgium: “An entrepreneurial mind-set around Europe should be created and the mentalities changed: it’s not only about strict measures.”

Junior Sikabwe, 23 from Denmark, doing an unpaid traineeship: “I don’t think the EU can do something very concrete, but it could set a framework of how to fight youth unemployment. Problems are different in each country. There is no unique solution.”

Guillaume Vimont, a 31-year-old job seeker from France: “The EU must fight against tax evasion and fraud. It represents a lot of money today that could be used for other things.”

Tania Del Sarto, 27, employed from Italy: “The problem is that education is far from the demands of the labour market. We need to change that. Schools in Italy do not reflect real life and real jobs.”

Maria Djurhuus Petersen, 27, employed, from Denmark: “The internships are both a solution and a problem. The EU should try to push countries to provide more useful internships and transform them into real jobs.”

What should the European Union in your opinion do to fight youth unemployment?

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?

Student video journalist competition about UK and the EU

Young journalists can take part in the EP's competition

Young journalists can take part in the EP’s competition

The European Parliament hosts a video competition for students on broadcast journalism courses in the UK. On the occasion of the UK’s 40th anniversary in the European Union the students are asked to take a look at how the European Union has influenced the Britons’ lives.

On its website, the organisers of the competition suggest a list of possible topics: “Examine attitudes to the EU among the general public; look at how the UK’s commitment to the EU has changed the way in which our democracy works, or highlight how a particular part of the country has benefited from the EU’s structural, cohesion, and social funds.”

A look at topics like those could be quite boring in countries that have greatly profited from the European Union and are overwhelmingly in favour of it.

But Britain is different: It keeps a distance towards the continental countries. David Cameron achieved special regulations on several occasions in the past and promised a referendum about EU membership if he wins a majority at the next general election.

It could be interesting to see what young journalists think about the UK’s current situation. But what is in for the students? Unfortunately, they cannot win any money. However, the winner’s work will be show cased at Europe House in London and the winner (or winning team) will get an expenses paid trip to the European Parliament.

The finalists’ video will also be broadcast on local TV stations across the UK, which might be a chance for the students to make some valuable contacts in the media industry.

Got interested? Students have time till the end of January 2014 to submit their short videos (3-5 minutes). The judges for the competition are three experienced journalists: Anna Averkiou, Tim Crook and Michael Green.

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.