Spy vs Spy

Study Claims Rising Number of German Cyber Attacks Originate in North America

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A study of 6,700 German companies shows that one in five have been victims of cyber attacks and 6 percent claim they have traced the incursions to foreign intelligence agencies.

  • Facts


    • The study raises new questions about the relationship between long-time friends and allies Germany and the U.S.
    • Most companies report professionals direct the attacks.
    • Germany and Europe must do a better job of protecting valuable assets from cyber espionage.
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Numerous German firms accuse  U.S. intelligence  forces of economic espionage. Source: Reuters
Numerous German firms accuse U.S. intelligence forces of economic espionage. Source: Reuters
Numerous German firms accuse U.S. intelligence forces of economic espionage. Source: Reuters


A new survey conducted exclusively for Handelsblatt finds that the number of corporate espionage attacks on German companies originating from North America are on the rise and are costing the nation’s economy tens of billions of euros.

The study also raises new concerns about Germany’s relationship with the United States in the wake of an ongoing spy scandal that has chilled diplomatic relations between the longtime friends and allies.

A study of 6,700 German firms by the security counseling firm Corporate Trust, a German consultant, found that cyber attacks originating from North America were just as likely to be directed at corporations as political targets. Munich-based Corporate Trust conducted the survy with help from Zurich Insurance Group, Securiton AG, a German security technology maker and the British risk-management firm Aon plc.

In the survey, 21.9% of respondents said they could trace cyber intrusions to North American sites.

Almost 6 percent of respondents said they had traced the source of attacks to foreign intelligence services. Given the high level of professionalism and state-of-the-art spying technology, it’s likely the actual number of attacks from foreign spy services is much greater.

In the survey, 21.9% of respondents said they could trace cyber intrusions to North American sites.

Christian Schaaf, founder and managing partner of Munich-based Corporate Trust, said the findings are alarming. In previous years, the surveys have never shown such a high volume of cyber attacks from North American sites, he said.

Since American whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the full extent of the U.S. National Security Administration’s intelligence-gathering reach – including allegations of tapping the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — there has been surprisingly little discussion of how often state security forces conduct economic espionage. The survey makes clear that gleaning information from businesses and corporations is often part of their mandate.

Norbert Pohlmann, director of the Institute for Internet Security at Westphalian College, said it’s not easy to determine the actual point of origin for cyber attacks, particularly in highly developed nations such as Germany and the U.S. with extensive broadband infrastructures.

“Every invader can represent his location however he wants,” Mr. Pohlmann said.


Corporate Trust estimates that the German economy alone has suffered damages of €11.8 billion from cyber espionage - including undiscovered cases, the number balloons to around €50 billion.

Nonetheless, the survey findings arrive at a time when Germany remains livid over American spying efforts and follows the expulsion of the U.S.’s top espionage official from Berlin. Some politicians have called for Germany to rethink its relationship with America.

“Put bluntly, for the German and European economy, there is good reason to arm against industrial espionage from all sides,” said Friedrich Merz, a prominent member of the Christian Democratic Union party and chairman of the board of the Atlantik-Brücke, or Atlantic Bridge, a private, not-for-profit, non-partisan group that works to improve German-U.S. ties.

“I am quite skeptical when I hear complaints that this is not how friends behave with each other,” Mr. Merz said.

Computer hackers are the most common attackers. The survey found that 41.5 percent of cyber attacks were launched by professionals, followed by 26.8 percent from customers and suppliers and just 22.8 percent from internal employees. Not all attacks are dangerous or malicious. Some are made by cyber warriors seeking to demonstrate prowess at cracking security measures.

“Invaders always seek the weakest point in a company,” Mr. Pohlmann said.

Based on the survey, Corporate Trust estimates that the German economy alone has suffered damages of €11.8 billion from cyber espionage. If the probable number of undiscovered cases are included, Mr. Schaaf said, the number balloons to around €50 billion.


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