On 17 May, the EU adopted legislation which will enable it to impose sanctions against persons and entities who engage in cyber-attacks against the EU and its member states. The sanctions will be designed "to deter and respond to cyber-attacks with a significant effect which constitute an external threat to the EU and its Member States". The new regime underlines a clear commitment by the EU to continue to strengthen its capability to address its "[concern] at the rise of malicious behaviour in cyberspace".
In recent years, the EU has taken a series of actions to tackle cyber threats. On 19 June 2017, the EU developed a framework for a joint response to malicious cyber threats (known as the "Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox"), and subsequent implementing guidelines envisaged sanctions as one of the tools available. The timing of the announcement of the new regime is also notable given its proximity to the EU Parliament elections which started on 23 May.
Reported concerns amongst officials from the EU and certain member states in the past have related to hacking incidents or threats linked to China, Russia and North Korea. However, the legislation explicitly states that the imposition of sanctions against a person or entity does not amount to attribution of responsibility to a third state, which is a political decision.
Scope of the sanctions regime
The sanctions will target persons involved in cyber-attacks with a significant effect which constitute an external threat to the EU and/or its member states. It also covers attempted attacks with a potentially significant effect."External"Cyber-attacks constituting an external threat include those which:
- originate, or are carried out, from outside the EU;
- use infrastructure outside the EU;
- are carried out by any person or entity established or operating outside the EU; or
- are carried out with the support, at the direction of or under the control of any person or entity operating outside the EU.
"Threat to member states or the EU"
Attacks which are a threat to member states are envisaged to be cyber-attacks targeting: (a) critical infrastructure; (b) social and economic services (such as in the energy, health and financial markets sector); (c) critical state functions (such as areas of defence and public elections); and (d) classified information.Threats to the EU include cyber-attacks carried out against its various institutions and its common security and defence policy ("CFSP"). The legislation also reserves the right to apply sanctions in relation to cyber-attacks against third States and international organisations where deemed necessary to achieve CFSP objectives, giving it a potentially broad scope.
Whether an attack has a "significant effect" will depend on a range of factors including the scale of disruption, the number of persons or entities concerned, the loss caused, and the nature of the data stolen.
Who can be penalised
There is a broad scope for those who could be listed. The sanctions could target individuals or entities who:
- carry out (attempted) cyber-attacks;
- provide financial, technical or material support for such attacks including facilitating such attacks by action or omission; or
- are associated with those in (a) or (b) above.
The type of sanctions imposed
The sanctions available will include a ban on any listed persons from travelling to the EU and asset freezes. EU persons and entities will also be forbidden from making funds or economic resources available directly or indirectly to those listed.
The new regime emphasises the continuing willingness of the EU to use sanctions to address concerns, noting the similarity of these sanctions to recent EU sanctions aimed at targeting the use of chemical weapons. While no one has yet been listed under this framework, there is a continuing need for companies to ensure that they have thorough, up-to-date and ongoing screening to identify any listed persons they might directly or indirectly deal with.
It is noted that the UK government has said that in the event of a "no deal" Brexit, it will look to carry over all EU sanctions through regulations made under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, in order to ensure a smooth transition. These UK regulations will come into force on 11 June 2019.