Pulling the Plug on Online Threats

12/06/2012 10:51 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 10:12 BST

Engineers at Iran's Natanz plant were baffled: although the computer signalled that everything was operating normally, centrifuges at the nuclear enrichment facility continued to inexplicably fail. They checked all machinery, scoured the plant for signs of sabotage and even dismissed some staff members. Yet the mysterious errors kept occurring.

It was only after it had accidentally spread to the internet, that it was discovered the cause of all these mishaps was a complex computer bug, specifically designed to slow down progress at the Natanz facility. The New York Times revealed on 1 June that the sophisticated attack on the computer systems had been instigated by former US president George W Bush and continued by his successor Barack Obama. A few weeks after the sabotage programme had been detected, it still succeeded in temporarily knocking out nearly a fifth of the 5,000 centrifuges used to purify uranium.

Although in this case the cyber attack was about preventing Iran developing a nuclear bomb, the same technologies could equally be used against freedom-loving democracies. Regions such as Europe, heavily dependent on computer systems for their infrastructure are especially at risk. And it is not the only digital threat: companies suffer from online attempts to steal their expertise so that technologies that have taken years to develop can be copied abroad; personal data left on websites can be sold on by businesses; children going online can be exposed to bullying or inappropriate content. Can Europe really afford to ignore these threats?

The European Parliament is taking these menaces seriously and working on concrete solutions. On 11 June, MEPs will debate a report by Bulgarian Social-Democrat Ivailo Kalfin about how best to protect Europe's critical information infrastructure from malicious cyber attacks. They will vote on the report the following day. Mr Kalfin argues minimum resilience standards again cyber attacks should be regularly updated, while if there is a serious threat there should also be the possibility to completely cut off access tocritical infrastructure. He also pleads for collaboration at an international level as many countries are faced with the same challenges. The MEP also calls for member states to establish national computer emergency response teams and draw up national cyber security strategies. In addition people will have to be informed about the potential threats out there through a pan-European education initiative.

German Christian-Democrat Monika Hohlmeier is working on a cybercrime report putting forward the way to deal with attacks against information systems in response to a Commission proposal. Firms increasingly face the problem of intellectual property theft, but instead of corporate spies breaking into premises, much of the mischief is achieved through digital means, such as crafty viruses.

The use of personal data left online is another issue that concerns many people. The Parliament's civil liberties committee is preparing a response to the Commission proposal for a new legal framework for the protection of personal data in Europe. The Commission wants to give people easier access to their own data and enable them to transfer personal data from one service to another. It also wants to establish the right to be forgotten, meaning that people can ask for their data to be deleted if there is no longer any legitimate reason for keeping it. At the same time it wants to cut the administrative burden for companies, saving €2.3 billion a year. Parliament will take care that the best balance is struck.

And let us not forget how to protect young people in a digital world. Italian Social-Democrat Silvia Costa has prepared a resolution calling for a single framework directive on the rights of minors and fighting unsuitable content in the digital world. The culture and education committee is expected to vote on it on 10 July. Protection of young people online is very much needed as 12% of 9 to 12-year-olds say they have been upset, mainly by bullying (40%) and by sexual content and approaches (25%). Young people spend on average 88 minutes a day online. The report calls for education on new media, more protection (against both illegal content and unsuitable content and conduct) as well as a form of digital citizenship, outlining the rights young people enjoy online.

That is not to say that everything digital is bad. Far from it. The internet has been a source of knowledge, debate and economic growth. But that is why it is important to curb excesses - to preserve everything that is good about it.

The photo shows a cyber war training course at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Hawaii