Europe's cybersecurity chief says the number of disruptive attacks has doubled recently and sees Russia behind many

Athens, Greece — The number of disruptive digital attacks, many of which have been traced to Russian-backed groups, have doubled in the European Union in recent months and have also targeted election-related services, the EU's top cybersecurity official said.

Juhan Lepassaar, head of the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity, or ENISA, told The Associated Press in an interview that attacks with geopolitical motives have steadily increased since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

“The number of hacktivist attacks (on) European infrastructure – threat actors whose main goal is to cause disruption – has doubled from the fourth quarter of 2023 to the first quarter of 2024,” Lepassaar said late on Tuesday at the agency's headquarters in Athens.

“It's a pretty significant increase,” he says.

Citizens from the EU's 27 member states will vote for lawmakers in the European Parliament from June 6 to 9 in an election that will also shape the EU's executive arm, the European Commission. Elections, also taking place in the United States, Britain and several other countries, have security services warning of the threat of disruption campaigns funded by opponents.

ENISA has led exercises and intensive consultations over the past seven months to strengthen the resilience of election-related agencies in the EU. In an annual report for 2023, the agency noted an increase in the number of ransomware attacks and incidents targeting public institutions.

Lepassaar said attack methods – while usually unsuccessful – were often tried in Ukraine before being expanded to EU countries.

“This is part of Russia's war of aggression, which they are waging physically in Ukraine, but also digitally throughout Europe,” he said.

Experts warn that artificial intelligence tools are also being used to target Western voters increasingly quickly and on a larger scale with misleading or false information, including hyper-realistic video and audio clips known as deepfakes.

“It is also emphasized by Member States' cybersecurity agencies that AI-enabled disinformation and information manipulation pose a major threat,” Lepassaar said.

His comments echo a warning from US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines this month that technological advances will allow more countries and groups to launch effective disinformation campaigns.

US and European experts have been helping security agencies anticipate emerging digital threats and vulnerabilities over the past decade, with ENISA identifying food production, satellite management and self-driving vehicles as areas in need of attention.

Cyber ​​security, Lepassaar argues, will inevitably have to become second nature for designers and consumers.

“I truly believe we have a societal challenge ahead of us to understand digital safety in the same way we understand safety in the everyday traffic environment,” he said.

“When we drive, we are aware of what is happening around us. We are alert,” he said. “We need to instill the same types of behaviors and habits when operating in any digital environment.”

___ Follow AP election-related news at: https://apnews.com/hub/global-elections

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