The first thing that I did this morning was to check if I had any pending updates to install on my smartphone. I recommend to everybody, without apology, this mildly annoying start to the day. Why? Because all of us need to play our part in the quiet and largely unnoticed battle that is raging in the virtual cyber world.

This is important because the digital economy is vital to Europe’s growth. The European Commission estimates the region will expand by €415 billion a year, if we can successfully support digital business. This isn’t a new concept; in fact, European companies have been leading the way in digital innovation for many years.

But now, the fourth industrial revolution – the fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres – leading to advances in areas such as supply chain automation, robotics and 3D printing – is having a profound impact on industry too, creating enormous opportunities for the region’s economy.

With data central to the digital economy, it’s therefore never been more important that we stay vigilant to one of the major issues of our time: Cyber security and data security.

With more and more evidence emerging of the ability to exploit vulnerabilities in everyday ‘smart’ devices it is no surprise that anxiety is rising about the Internet of Things – the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.

A new phase

We are entering a new phase in our relationship with technology – in particular the ‘smart’ variety which is rapidly altering our interactions with everything from our laptops to fridges, cars and televisions. When machines that we watch for our entertainment become smart enough to watch us back it is time to pause for thought about where this journey from the analogue to the digital world is leading us.

Technology’s promise is to make our lives easier but, with cybercrime surging and the frontline of this new battle potentially moving into your living room, there are big questions we must ask and solutions to present..

Fortunately we’re not powerless in this fight – increasing awareness, resilience and deterrence are things we can do collectively to tip the balance back in our favour and enable the promise of the digital economy.

There is of course a legitimate on-going debate about access to data by national intelligence agencies for specific law enforcement purposes.  But, more widely, as Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017 reveals, highly sophisticated crime syndicates are increasingly using cyber in a way that affects us all. Cybercrime leapt from being the niche activity of geeks to being the mainstream tools of the trade for crooks.

Cybercrime leapt from being the niche activity of geeks to being the mainstream tools of the trade for crooks.

For almost all types of organised crime, criminals are deploying and adapting technology with ever greater skill and to ever greater effect. This is now, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing law enforcement authorities around the world.

Cryptoware – ransomware using encryption – has become the leading malware in terms of threat and impact. It encrypts victims’ user-generated files, denying them access unless the victim pays a fee to have their files decrypted.

Europol points out that the online trade in illicit goods and services is an engine of organised crime. Half of all companies in Europe have experienced at least one cybersecurity incident. Globally, the cost to society of cyberattacks and cyber hacking in 2015 was estimated by Grant Thornton to be around $315 billion.

The dark web, a collection of websites operating on an encrypted network hidden from traditional search engines and browsers, is the criminals’ bazaar where, subject to the right introductions, I am reliably informed that I can rent a botnet for a modest sum which I could use to launch a Distributed Denial of Service attack against anyone I felt like.

As the Internet of Things grows we risk inadvertently lowering the threshold both in terms of cost and availability for these attacks. My smart fridge and TV have factory-set security codes, which is insecurity by design. This needs to change.

A plan for the future

Working with colleagues across the European Commission, I am determined to implement a plan for reducing our vulnerability to cyber threats by increasing our resilience to attacks, reinforcing security by design, stepping up the fight against cybercrime, investing in cyber security (a public-private partnership launched last year is expected to trigger 1.8 billion euros of investment by 2020) and strengthening international cooperation.

The interconnected world offers many opportunities for citizens, governments and public and private enterprises to make a positive contribution to society. But it also offers unprecedented opportunities to criminals, terrorists, and hostile states. We must be better prepared for whatever the future holds and ensure the opportunities of the digital economy are realised to their full and positive potential.