The recent Petya and WannaCry cyber attacks that paralyzed computers across the globe, demanding ransom money to recover data, drove home the threat posed by hackers. Yet cyber security teams were able to restore most operations in days. And that obscured a bigger danger.
Faced with more targeted spy attacks, companies are often forced to capitulate. Sabotage and spy attacks aren’t just a matter of a couple of hundred euros ransom. They can threaten a company’s very existence. The damage they cause costs an estimated €50 billion ($57 billion) each year in Germany alone.
No wonder sophisticated attacks prompt company boards to call in private task forces. These elite units are like the Paul “Red” Adair of digital security. Firefighter Red Adair was called in to perform such daring feats as parachuting onto a burning gas rig and dropping an explosive charge to smoother the flames. The heroes preventing digital disasters are less spectacular. In fact, they prefer to work in complete secrecy.
When a call comes in to BFK EDV Consulting’s offices on the third floor of a former post office building, founder Christoph Fischer rushes to the crime scene in a rental car. “The attackers could have accomplices within the company,” he says. Keeping a low profile is the first priority.
Mr. Fischer and his team make an initial assessment of the threat level and set up base camp. At this stage, all he needs is a specially prepared laptop to examine the clues.
Once suspicions have been confirmed, a van arrives with portable mainframe computers, printers, photocopiers, fax machines and routers to set up separate, encrypted data lines. Mr. Fischer is careful to ensure he is working completely independent of the victim’s resources.
And he insists on his own coffee machine. “A lot of coffee is important,” Mr. Fischer says, “and it has to be good.”
The 59-year-old is a veteran of the Germany’s small IT-security scene. He founded the first cyber fire department 32 years ago. Since then, he’s responded to 46 call-outs, including just three false alarms. He can’t name his customers. There’s too much at stake.
Intelligence services, most likely from China, have spied on oil rigs for information about new oil fields. Other hackers attack banks on behalf of intelligence services to reveal NGOs’ financial sources. Mr. Fischer has seen too much to consider anything in the data world truly safe. He admits to being “paranoid” and is currently working on his own software for his home. “I don’t trust networked household appliances at all.”
Picking out his most dramatic case is a tough call. Hackers accessed video cameras at a data processing center to see who was going in and out. And there was a Chinese intern who actually sneaked into a company at night to print out thousands of pages of confidential information until the printer drum got too hot and he had to replace it with one from the technical college next door.