Allegations that the Russian government launched an organized campaign to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election have unsettled Europe. With national elections approaching in Germany in September, policymakers in Berlin are concerned that Europe’s largest economy could be the next target.
“We of course have to assume that in the German campaign there will be attempts to influence the outcome of the federal elections,” said Daniela Schwarzer, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations, during a recent podium discussion on cyber security.
The discussion, which took place during the Munich Security Conference, was attended by interior and defense ministers from a host of nations. They listened as security experts Klaus Schweinsberg and Marco Gercke ran simulations in which a fictional European nation faces a cyber attack aimed at its elections.
In the first scenario, social networks are flooded with fake news; in the second scenario, the government doesn’t know if its networks have been infiltrated or not.
“We of course have to assume that in the German campaign there will be attempts to influence the outcome of the federal elections. ”
“It always comes down to whether or not those in positions of power have grappled with how to react immediately in a crisis situation,” Mr. Gercke said.
That was the problem in the United States, the experts concluded, with the U.S. government simply unprepared to ward off a concerted effort by a foreign power to influence its elections.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign to undermine former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and help U.S. President Donald Trump win the election.
The tactics employed by the hackers surprised the security experts. Mr. Schweinsberg said he expected hackers to target the actual voting machines. Instead, they used social networks to influence the opinions of voters.
“For the first time, artificial intelligence was used in a large way,” Mr. Schweinsberg said. This technology made it possible to target individual voters, he added.
The political climate in Germany, normally subdued compared to the partisan rancor in the United States, has grown tense over the past year. Currently, there are numerous pressure points where a foreign power could seek to influence the election outcome.
Like in the United States, a right-wing populist movement is gaining traction with German voters. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has entered 10 of 16 regional parliaments by tapping into dissatisfaction with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy and the European Union.
“We are building a GSG-9 for cyber security.”
Currently polling at around 10 percent, the AfD is poised to enter the federal parliament for the first time, but the party is unlikely to enter government due to Germany’s system of proportional voting and coalition building. All the other parties have already ruled out working with the AfD.
However, Ms. Merkel, who is running for her fourth term as chancellor, could lose the election this year. The center-left Social Democrats, buoyed by the popularity of their new standard bearer Martin Schulz, is running neck-and-neck with Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats in the polls and could build a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party to oust her.
Arne Schönbohm, president of Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security, said his agency is prepared for any attacks on the government’s networks. His office has also offered to secure the networks of Germany’s political parties, he said. Mr. Schönbohm warned that hackers could also seek to influence regional elections, such as the upcoming vote in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
The German government has gone on a spending spree to protect against cyber attacks. Mr. Schönbohm’s agency is hiring 180 specialists to staff quick response teams, and it has received an additional €20 million in funding, putting €120 million at its disposal.
“We are building a GSG-9 for cyber security,” said Mr. Schönbohm, referring to the federal police force’s counterterrorism and special operations unit. Mr. Schönbohm made the comments in a December interview with WirtschaftsWoche, Handelsblatt’s sister publication.
Governments, however, are still playing catch up. Companies are often better prepared for cyber attacks, said Stefan Mair, an executive at BDI, the lobby that represents German industry.
The U.S. tech company Jigsaw, a subsidiary of the Google holding company Alphabet, is developing software solutions to counter cyber security threats. Scott Carpenter, the head of Jigsaw, said cyber threats often still trigger panic in public institutions.
Jigsaw is currently working on software to defend against internet trolls and hateful comments. The company has developed a filter, designed using comments at The New York Times’ website, that would allow internet users to block hateful comments.
Donata Riedel covers politics from Berlin. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org