Hack Attacks

Berlin Under Cyber-Siege

The Bundestag only recently stopped the digital attack. Source: Handelsblatt/imago
The Bundestag will have to replace most of its IT equipment.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s digital defenses have proven to be woefully weak, threatening the integrity of the government’s dealings.

  • Facts


    • Hackers penetrated to the deepest levels of the Bundestag’s network, even obtaining administrator privileges.
    • Security experts think a foreign intelligence service could be behind the attack.
    • The European Central Bank is looking into bank security against cyber attacks.
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As a member of the German parliament’s intelligence oversight committee, Burkhard Lischka handles top-secret documents every day. But over the past few weeks these files may have been compromised after hackers infiltrated much of the German Bundestag’s computer network – an attack that was known about but, it has just emerged, was hugely underestimated. “I actually should have stopped working,” Mr. Lischka said.

Many German lawmakers failed to take the unprecedented cyber attack seriously at first. But that all changed when the government’s IT security experts discovered the extent of the hacking.

On Thursday, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert called on the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, for help. The move came after specialists from the Federal Office for IT Security, or BSI, told parliamentarians that hackers, likely working for a foreign intelligence service, had penetrated the heart of the Bundestag’s network, even gaining administrative privileges. It was the digital equivalent of an open wound.

Though there is no more data flowing, the threat is far from over. At the very least, servers which cannot be reliably cleansed will have to be replaced. Hackers could have uploaded timed malware that might only be activated months from now.

Digital bank robbers made off with an estimated $1 billion, using malware to observe how banks transfer money.

However, neither the BSI nor the Bundestag are in a position to fix the data centers, which is why a partner is being sought. The most likely candidate for the job is Deutsche Telekom, but there is no estimate as to how much the repairs, likely to take months, will cost.

“But it’s unlikely that the computers of the lawmakers will also have to be exchanged,” one parliamentarian, who had been extensively briefed on the matter, told Handelsblatt.

The attack shows just how professional hackers have become. In the United States, cyber attackers recently managed to tap into a government database holding the personal details of more than four million government employees.

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“The ability of the attackers will eventually surpass those trying to fend them off,” warned Jamie Shea, NATO’s deputy assistant secretary general.

And there are concerns that Europe’s banks could be targeted next. Regulators at the European Central Bank are alarmed and have started a comprehensive analysis of cyber security at the 123 banks under their supervision, Handelsblatt has learned.

The banks were required to fill out a form with 120 questions and return it by the end of April. The analysis is now being done, according to sources.

The interest from the regulators is understandable, as there is no requirement for banks to report cyber attacks. And most financial institutions don’t mention them voluntarily.

“Banks are very quiet about damages,” said Veit Siegenheim, head of CIO Advisory Services at consultancy Capgemini, explaining that most fear irreparable harm to their reputations.

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The Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab in February said that around 100 banks have been subject to a cyber attack known as Carbanak over the past two years. The digital bank robbers made off with an estimated $1 billion (€891 million), using malware to observe how banks transfer money.

The ECB did not want to comment directly on its latest inquiry about bank security, but it did express concern about cyber attacks.

“The ECB bank supervision looks closely at cyber crime risks, since the banking sector is increasingly reliant on complex IT systems and at the same time the capacity for cyber criminality appears to be growing,” said an ECB spokeswoman.

And that means the attacks have only just begun.


Till Hoppe and Yasmin Osman are correspondents in Berlin and Frankfurt. To contact them: t.hoppe@handelsblatt.com and osman@handelsblatt.com

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