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The head of European cybersecurity says the number of destructive attacks has doubled recently, with Russia behind many of them

The European Union’s top cybersecurity official says destructive digital attacks have doubled in the 27-nation bloc in recent months, with election-related services also being targeted

Juhan Lepassaar, head of the European Union Cybersecurity Agency (ENISA), told The Associated Press that geopolitically motivated attacks have been steadily increasing since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

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

“It’s quite a significant increase,” he said.

Citizens of the 27 EU member states will vote on June 6-9 for lawmakers in the European Parliament in elections that will also shape the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. The elections, which will also be held in the United States, Britain and many other countries, have alerted security agencies to the threat of disruption campaigns financed by opponents.

Over the last seven months, ENISA has been conducting exercises and intensive consultations to strengthen the resilience of EU election agencies. In its 2023 annual report, the agency noted a sharp increase in the number of ransomware attacks and incidents targeting public institutions.

Lepassaar said the attack methods – while mostly ineffective – were often tried in Ukraine before being extended to EU countries.

“This is part of the Russian war of aggression that they are waging physically in Ukraine, but also digitally throughout Europe,” he said.

“Member state cybersecurity agencies have emphasized that disinformation and information manipulation using artificial intelligence pose a high threat,” Lepassaar said.

His comments echo a warning issued this month by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines that technological advances will make more nations and groups able to conduct effective disinformation campaigns.

US and European experts are helping security agencies try to anticipate emerging digital threats and vulnerabilities over the course of this decade, with ENISA identifying food production, satellite management and autonomous vehicles as areas requiring attention.

Cybersecurity, Lepassaar argues, will inevitably have to become second nature to designers and consumers.

“When we drive a car, we are aware of what is happening around us. We are vigilant,” he said. “We need to instill these same kinds of behaviors and habits when operating in any digital environment.”

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