(Bloomberg) -- Cyber-terrorists could be planning to undermine elections in France and Germany, the European Union warned, as tensions grow at the start of what could prove a pivotal year for the bloc.

With nationalist Marine Le Pen in the running to become French president and Chancellor Angela Merkel fighting off anti-establishment forces as she seeks re-election in Germany, the EU said it is vital that governments shore up defenses against online threats from states and rogue cyber-gangs.

“Worryingly for an EU with several national elections this year is the new-found capacity for cyber to be used to manipulate democratic processes,” European Security Commissioner Julian King said in a speech at the University of Oxford on Friday. “It is not hard to see how a false e-mail inserted in a hack of thousands laundered through Wikileaks could have a powerful influence on public opinion.”

With the U.S. intelligence services accusing Russia of hacking the American presidential vote and the EU saying propaganda from Moscow was used to influence referendums in the U.K. and the Netherlands last year, the bloc’s leaders are bracing for cyber-warfare to intensify further with at least four elections this year.

‘Fake News’

Russia is trying to divide the EU by spreading disinformation about the impact of migration, the reason for terrorism and other issues, said an EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Merkel is the biggest target of Russia’s “fake news” propaganda, according to the official.

The EU has urged all its member governments to have a cyber-strategy to deal with the threats. The bloc is bolstering cooperation between national police forces and other authorities and working with countries outside Europe to share intelligence.

“The actors are not only criminals, with ransomware, malware and phishing, driven by a profit motive, but also state and non-state actors who see cyber as a valuable and deniable weapon,” King said, according to the text of his speech released by his office. “Cyber-attacks do not take into account geographical borders and can be achieved at a low cost with devastating effects, including posing a risk to our internal security.”

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access