Cybersecurity in the European Union and Beyond: Exploring the Threats and Policy Responses


This study was commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the LIBE Committee. It sets out to develop a better understanding of the main cybersecurity threats and existing cybersecurity capabilities in the European Union and the United States. The study further examines transnational cooperation and explores perceptions of the effectiveness of the EU response, pinpointing remaining challenges and suggesting avenues for improvement. AUTHORS : Dr Nicole van der Meulen, Eun A Jo and Stefan Soesanto (RAND Europe)


The European Commission published the European Union Cyber Security Strategy along with the accompanying proposal for a Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive in 2013. Since the proposal was published, the cybersecurity landscape has continued to evolve, leading to questions regarding the nature and seriousness of the cyberthreats faced by the European Union (EU), the capabilities of Member States to manage these threats and respond to incidents, and the effectiveness of these capabilities. At the time of writing, discussions about the content and scope of the proposed NIS Directive are continuing. This study of cybersecurity threats in the EU was commissioned by the European Parliament (EP). It has five objectives:

  • To identify key cyberthreats facing the EU and the challenges associated with their identification.
  • To identify the main cybersecurity capabilities in the EU.
  • To identify the main cybersecurity capabilities in the United States (US).
  • To assess the current state of transnational cooperation.
  • To explore perceptions of the effectiveness of the current EU response.

Defining cybersecurity

Any study of cybersecurity must reflect on the challenges introduced by the different meanings of the term. There is no consensus on a standard or universally accepted definition of cybersecurity. The term cybersecurity has roots in information security but is now used to refer to a broader range of issues, linked to national security. The observation that cybersecurity means different things to different people is not without its consequences. How the issue is framed influences what constitutes a threat as well as what counter-measures are needed and justified.

Mapping cybersecurity threats

The study team’s analysis of six threat assessments1 and an existing meta-analysis carried about by Gehem et al. (2015) highlight the difficulty with systematically comparing threat assessments and gauging the reliability of data and findings on the basis of which threat assessments are conducted. The challenge rests in part in the absence of a commonly accepted definition of what constitutes a threat and the variation in the methodology and metrics used for threat assessments. Moreover, some threat assessments reference or are based on other threat assessments, rather than original sources, leading to potential duplication of findings and lack of clarity about the evidence underlying threat assessments. As a result, there is no clearly established framework to classify and map threats.

The study team created a framework for mapping threats. The framework distinguishes:

  • Threat    actors:    states,    profit-driven    cybercriminals,    and    hacktivists   and extremists.
  • Threat tools: malware and its variants, such as (banking) Trojans, ransomware, point-of-sale malware, botnets and exploits.
  • Threat   types:   unauthorised   access,   destruction,   disclosure,   modification   of information and denial of service.

The mapping of the cyberthreat landscape through the review of the six threat assessments was complemented by a discussion on the varying perceptions of the severity of threats and the concept of‘threat inflation’.

Cybersecurity capabilities in the EU

To respond to the evolving threat in the area of cybersecurity, the EU has aimed to provide an overarching response through the publication of the EU Cyber Security Strategy together with the proposed NIS Directive. The Strategy identifies five objectives including:

  • Achieving cyberresilience.
  • Drastically reducing cybercrime.
  • Developing   cyberdefence   policy  and   capabilities  related  to  the  Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
  • Developing the industrial and technological resources for cybersecurity.
  • Establishing   a   coherent   international   cyberspace   policy  for  the   EU   and promote core EU values.

This study focuses on providing a descriptive overview of capabilities for the first three objectives. Capabilities for the purposes of this study have been operationalised as institutional structures, such as agencies and departments.

  • In the area of cyberresilience, the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) is the primary player at the EU level. ENISA is tasked with addressing the existing fragmentation in the European approach to cybersecurity, namely by bridging the capability gaps of its Member States. In the cybercrime domain, the European Cyber Crime Centre (EC3) serves as a European cybercrime platform. Besides combatting cybercrime, EC3 also gathers cyberintelligence and serves as an intermediary among various stakeholders, such as law enforcement authorities, Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), industry and academia.
  • In the area of cyberdefence, the European Defence Agency (EDA) supports the capability development necessary to implement the Strategy. Its most apparent activities remain in research and development and designing a common crisis response platform. Given that foreign and defence policies have conventionally been areas of domestic competence, it is understandable that EU-wide cyberdefence capabilities have developed at a different pace compared to the other two objectives, cyberresilience and cybercrime.

Cybersecurity capabilities in the US

Cybercapabilities in the US are challenging to map in a comprehensive manner. The tendency to layer initiatives and agencies makes navigating the different components difficult. For the purposes of a high-level comparison with the EU cyber capabilities, the study focuses on key institutional players and their roles in relation to three strategic priorities: cyberresilience, cybercrime and cyberdefence.

  • In the area of cyberresilience, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the formal leader. The DHS is responsible for securing federal civilian government networks, protecting critical infrastructure and responding to cyberthreats.
  • In the area of cybercrime, the US has not designated any lead investigative agency. Instead, numerous federal law enforcement agencies combat cybercrime in their own capacity. These include the US Secret Service (USSS) and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Cyber Crimes Center, which are both  agencies  within  the  DHS.  The  Federal   Bureau  of Investigation  (FBI)’s cyberdivision is also involved.
  • In cyberdefence, the Department of Defence (DoD) plays a leading role. It is readily apparent from the DoD’s multiple publications that the US has become more open about its capabilities and willing to name its adversaries. The DoD is also increasingly encompassing in its response to cyberthreats over time, investing in both defensive as well as offensive cybercapabilities, as detailed in its cyberdefence strategy published in April 2015. Commentators note that deterrence is a key characteristic of the US cyberdefence strategy.

Transnational cooperation

The necessity to engage in transnational cooperation to counter the complex challenge posed by cybercrime is widely recognised both inside and outside the EU. Transnational cooperation exists at both the strategic and the operational level. The EU-US Working Group on Cybersecurity and Cybercrime is an example of strategic cooperation and is the first transatlantic dialogue to tackle common challenges in the area of cybercrime and cybersecurity. On an operational level, transnational cooperation has manifested through a range of activities, from botnet takedown to disruption of underground forums.

Challenges, however, remain in the area of combatting cybercrime as identified by the study team through the interviews. Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) are widely regarded as outdated and obstacles to effective and timely information sharing. Further, the importance of acquiring data for investigations is debated among law enforcement agencies and civil society groups. Deconfliction – avoiding the duplication or conflict of efforts – is another challenge. Due to the involvement of various stakeholders, cooperation is essential to avoid potentially disrupting others’ efforts. The draft Europol Regulation contains provisions that interviewees have reported could complicate the attainment of information from the private sector, possibly obstructing future operations.2

Effectiveness of the EU response

Ideally, capabilities respond directly to threats and the effectiveness of the EU response can be measured by noticeable changes in the threat landscape. However, such an assessment is not feasible; there is not enough information available in the public domain and measurement problems persist. Moreover, the EU response is still very much in development and geared towards addressing fragmentation in its approach to cybersecurity, as well as the approach taken by the 28 Member States. This consists of harmonising strategies and standards and coordinating regulatory interventions, as well as facilitating (or more precisely, requiring) information sharing and gap closures between Member States. Due to the inherently relative nature of cybersecurity and the challenges associated with attaining cyberresilience, it is difficult to state whether the new initiatives have been successful. Given these challenges to measuring effectiveness, the study team explored perceptions about the effectiveness of the EU response based on existing commentary and supplemented with interviewees’ responses.
The first key finding in relation to the perceived effectiveness of the EU response is that while there is still fragmentation, there is also discernible improvement. Particularly noteworthy is the strategic cooperation agreement between ENISA and EC3, which aims to facilitate closer cooperation and the exchange of expertise. However, questions remain about fragmentation, especially with respect to the proposed NIS Directive. Various points of dissension remain as the trilogue negotiations between the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of the European Union continue. Moreover, fragmentation is notable not only in terms of operational capabilities but also in terms of Member States’ understanding of the cyberdomain. Bridging these gaps will therefore require technical support as well as strategic guidance.

The second finding is that differences in opinion persist as to whether the overall approach to cybersecurity should be voluntary and informal or mandatory and formal. For example, the CERT community, which has conventionally relied on voluntary participation and cooperation between private and public entities, appears less willing to move to a system in which information sharing is mandatory. In contrast, other security agencies favour law enforcement and support more stringent requirements, for instance in information sharing, as they believe voluntary reporting has failed.

Third, as the new approach proposed through the Strategy and the draft NIS Directive is largely regulatory in nature, the issue of scope – in terms of the entities formally included as having a role in cybersecurity – is heightened and contested. One issue is whether Internet service providers (ISPs) should be included. These scoping challenges are likely to exacerbate existing contentions surrounding the NIS Directive and call into question whether the present regulatory approach is appropriate to secure European cyberspace.

Policy options

Based on this study’s findings the research team suggests the following policy options for the European Parliament’s consideration in terms of EU action on cybersecurity. Each option is elaborated in the Conclusion.

  1. Encourage ENISA, EC3 and others involved in European cyberthreat assessments to investigate further harmonisation of threat assessments, which can effectively incorporate information from Member States and other EU agencies and provide clearer indications of the evidence base for the assessment. This recommendation follows from the findings from the review of threat assessments undertaken for this study.
  2. Make use of existing structures as much as possible. One of the concerns identified by the study team – from a review of existing literature and in interviews with experts – was the tendency of the Commission to develop new structures and exclude existing initiatives and agencies.
  3. Consider reinserting law enforcement in the Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive. The attempt to overcome fragmentation at the EU level is hampered by the exclusion of law enforcement from provisions in the proposed NIS Directive.
  4. Ensure Europol has speedy and more direct access to information from the private sector. Speedy access to relevant information from the private sector is essential for Europol to combat transnational cybercrime. There is potential for this access to be hindered by having to go through the Member States, which may reduce the effectiveness of Europol’s operations, especially as Europol cooperates with partners at the transnational level.
  5. Assess what capability gaps actually exist between the Member States and measure progress. Despite the claims about gaps between Member States, our research suggests that there is very little empirical evidence to indicate which States are more advanced than others and in what areas. To improve this situation and to develop a better understanding of these gaps, ranking Member States and identifying areas of improvement could be made more explicit.

…continue reading


1  (ACSC: Threat Report; BSI: State of IT Security Germany; ENISA: Threat Landscape (ETL); Europol: Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment (iOCTA); NCSC: Cyber Security Threat Assessment the Netherlands (CSAN); Verizon: Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR).
2 European Parliament. 2014b. Legislative resolution of 25 February 2014 on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation and Training (Europol) and repealing Decisions 2009/371/JHA and 2005/681/JHA. P7_TA(2014)0121 (COM(2013)0173 – C7-0094/2013 – 2013/0091(COD)). As of 12 October 2015:


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