The European Commission (EC) is looking to strengthen computer hacking laws, with proposals that would see launching an attack on IT systems become a criminal offence, with a minimum sentence of two years' jail time.
The EC also wants those that are found guilty of operating botnets to be jailed for at least five years.
Under the proposals, companies would be liable for cyber attacks committed for their benefit.
"We are dealing here with serious criminal attacks, some of which are even conducted by criminal organisations. The financial damage caused for companies, private users and the public side amounts to several billions each year," said rapporteur Monika Hohlmeier.
Currently, EC members are free to prosecute computer crimes as they see fit. In the UK, for example, the Computer Misuse Act is the primary mechanism for prosecuting IT-related crime.
The EC proposals would harmonise rules across the continent, and Hohlmeier is seeking to get agreement in the European Parliament this summer.
The proposals provide a sensible platform for harmonising rules, establishing a central intelligence hub and placing legal obligations on nations for ensuring they have adequate standards for protecting critical systems, said Rik Ferguson, a security researcher at Trend Micro. However, the threat of long prison sentences may do little to discourage some cyber crooks.
"It seems that no length of jail term is sufficient to deter the ambitious and determined cybercriminal, as evidenced by the long terms faced by some of the recent arrests in the US," he told V3.
While IT chiefs may welcome tougher cybercrime penalties, the proposals look likely to generate some controversy. Under the proposals, possessing or distributing hacking software or tools would also become a criminal offence.
While the intention may be to target the production and sale of programs designed to launch denial of service attacks or ones to root out passwords, it could end up encompassing white hat hacking tools, which many firms rely on for security audits and penetration tests.
"The key to legislation which will not impact the lawful work of security researchers and organisations though is that question of intent," said Ferguson. "Which I feel is adequately covered in this draft."
The EC Civil Liberties Committee approved the proposals yesterday by 50 votes to one.
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